WRESTLING a tradition of New England-style independence, Massachusetts finds itself once again embroiled in a debate over whether to pass a mandatory seat-belt law.
Over the past nine years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation requiring drivers to buckle up. But Massachusetts and two other New England states - New Hampshire and Maine - have rejected the law, based on an opposition to government regulation of private behavior.
Here in the Bay State, there is a feeling of da vu as seat-belt advocates rally once again for their cause. A belt law originally passed here in 1985, but was repealed in 1986 after voters rejected it in a referendum.
``Unfortunately, all the evidence that would indicate that seat-belt usage saves lives and prevents injuries wasn't in,'' says a belt proponent, state Sen. James Jajuga (D).
``Because of the lack of information,'' he continues, ``there was a movement started in Massachusetts to repeal, and the law was repealed.''
This time, however, proponents believe they will be successful, ultimately. Legislation has already passed both the state Senate and House of Representatives. And although Gov. William Weld (R) is expected to veto the bill later on this week, supporters feel they already have enough votes to override the probable veto. Strong pros and cons
Debate has been contentious. Proponents argue that the legislation helps save lives, reduces injuries, and lowers insurance costs. Supporters argue the law infringes on privacy rights.
According to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NTHSA), seat-belt usage in Massachusetts is quite low - 32 percent, compared with 62 percent for the entire country.
``We're tied for 47th in the nation for seat-belt usage,'' says Senator Jajuga. ``Something has to be done, and it has to be done now.''
Seat-belt laws vary in different states. Primary laws allow police officers to stop drivers for the sole purpose of checking seat belts. Under secondary laws, drivers can fined be for not wearing belts only if they have been stopped for some other reason. So far, only 10 states have primary seat-belt laws, says Chuck Hurley, a spokesman for the Insurance Industry for Highway Safety.
New York, in 1984, was the first state in the country to pass a seat-belt law. Under the state's primary law, drivers face a fine of $50. In contrast, Massachusetts' proposed secondary law would fine drivers $25.
Traditionally, opposition to belt laws has been strong in New England. Vermont only recently passed a belt law, which will go into effect this January. Meanwhile, Maine's Gov. John McKernan Jr. (R) vetoed that state's seat-belt legislation earlier this summer after it passed the Legislature.
Here in Massachusetts, Governor Weld favors putting the issue to a referendum vote so that citizens can decide the issue themselves. Weld says drivers should be urged to wear belts through public safety education, but that they should not forced by a mandatory law.
``The governor wears seat belts, his wife and children wear seat belts, and we will do everything to encourage the wearing of seat belts,'' says Charles MacDonald, a spokesman for the state public safety department. ``There is not a debate as to whether seat belts make sense. This is purely [a question ] of the mandatory nature of the law.''
Chip Ford, chairman of the anti-seat belt group, No Means No!, agrees. Mr. Ford helped lobby for the repeal of the state's first seat-belt law seven years ago.
``Freedom won in 1986,'' he says. ``How many times do the people have to assert their opinion before the legislature accepts their opinion. Does the vote mean anything?'' Construction money at stake
Proponents, on the other hand, point out that states without safety belt laws will lose federal highway construction funds. If Massachusetts fails to pass a seat-belt law by Oct. 1, 1994, for example, $1.6 million of its federal highway construction money will be transferred to the state highway safety program. The funds would be used for educational purposes to promote highway safety.
Proponents also point to escalating insurance rates. Bodily insurance rates in Massachusetts have gone up 176 percent since 1985, says Mr. Jajuga.
``We have the highest auto insurance rates in the nation. Since 1985, the portion of our insurance policies that have seen the highest increase is the bodily-injury portion,'' he says.
Besides the three New England states, two other states - Kentucky and North Dakota - do not have seat-belt laws. While North Dakota has a law, its implementation has been delayed due to a planned June 1994 voter referendum.
Meanwhile, other states are strictly enforcing their laws. North Carolina, for example, began a new seat-belt enforcement initiative last month called ``Click It or Ticket.'' Under the program, police officers stationed at various checkpoints stop drivers and check for selt-belt use. Unbuckled drivers are fined $25. Gov. James Hunt (D) hopes the program will increase the state's current seat belt use from 65 percent to 85 percent.