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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine wants to strengthen seat belt laws, GOP lawmakers not interested


Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine wants to strengthen seat belt laws, GOP lawmakers not interested

Apr 16, 2024 | 4:50 am ET
By Morgan Trau
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine wants to strengthen seat belt laws, GOP lawmakers not interested
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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is drafting a bill to strengthen seat belt laws and allow law enforcement officers to pull people over for not buckling up. Republican lawmakers aren’t interested, arguing that it goes against personal liberty.

During his State of the State address last Wednesday, the governor said that Ohio has an obligation to keep children safe on roads and highways.

“We also know that a primary seat belt law would protect people traveling on Ohio’s roadways,” DeWine said.

Seat belt laws in the state fall under secondary enforcement, meaning police officers can’t pull over drivers or passengers for non-use of the safety device. They can, however, ticket someone for not wearing a seat belt if they are already pulled over for another reason.

In Ohio, drivers and front-seat passengers who are 15 years of age and older must wear a seat belt. Anyone ages eight to 14 also has to wear a belt in any seat of the car; this means that 15-year-olds and older do not have to wear seat belts in the back seat. Children aged seven and under have to use a car or booster seat.

The state lags in safety, DeWine said. As of 2023, seat belt use was at about 92% nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Ohio usage was at 80.8% in 2022, the Ohio Traffic Safety Office (OTSO) reported.

“Ohio is 10th from the bottom of all states in seat belt use,” DeWine said in his address. “Sadly, our youngest drivers have the lowest rate.”

Cuyahoga County had the lowest overall compliance with seat belts of any county — with just 59%, OTSO said.

But DeWine’s proposal may not make it to the finish line — or even on the track. This is not the first time the governor has tried to put this into state law. He tried to put it into the budget in 2023, but the lawmakers immediately took it out.

“One of my concerns about that bill is, or the concept, is there’s some of it is personal freedom,” Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) said. “Some of it also is, the folks who tend to get those tickets, those folks who are stopped the most, are people who are least able to pay the bill — usually people who are stopping at a stop sign in an urban area.”

Huffman would want to hear testimony on it. He then mentioned his experience in driver’s ed — everyone knew to put the belt on, and some did, and others didn’t.

“When the bill was passed that required it or you could be ticketed as a secondary law, the promise was, ‘Well, this will never become a primary offense,” he added. “I have some trepidation about it.”

He said when it is introduced to the Senate, he will let it run its course and see what people have to say.

Huffman was also not a fan of DeWine’s distracted driving law that went into effect in 2023.

Senate Bill 288, which was signed into law in January 2023, made texting and driving a primary offense in the state, which means law enforcement can stop and issue citations to drivers solely for that offense. In April, we obtained data that showed Ohio State Highway Patrol issued 8,268 tickets statewide since the law went into effect.

House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) also isn’t enthused by the governor’s seat belt bill. His concern comes from being an insurance agent “in real life,” he said.

“The issue becomes — how much personal responsibility is required by individuals,” the speaker said.

The Democrats didn’t have much to say about the legislation.

“Frankly, it was the first time that I have heard this brought up as a proposal and priority for him,” House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) said. “We will continue the discussion.”

In a conversation with DeWine’s spokesperson, Dan Tierney, I asked him how he could get the leaders’ support.

“We understand that people’s position is one of individual liberty, but that is certainly what we are dealing with with public safety — trying to balance the individual freedoms with the ability to save lives,” Tierney said. “This is one where it’s a very minimally invasive way, by wearing a seat belt, that is shown to save lives.”

The governor’s team is going to need to educate and compromise with the legislators, he added.

“It would put Ohio in line with the majority of states, make Ohio at least the 35th state to have one,” Tierney continued. “Over half of the states have primary seat belt enforcement law.”

He added that showing the lawmakers how many other conservative states have this requirement could provide context.

The entirety of the south, including Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Florida — all states where Ohio lawmakers get ideas of legislation from — are all primary enforcement states.

I asked if DeWine wants all passengers to have to buckle in, not just the ones listed by law.

“We would certainly look at that,” the spokesperson said, “But we want a bill that will pass through the legislature.”

Already, the governor is making a big ask — especially because it took plenty of time to get the driving bill through.

“Life is precious and we don’t want to have any more families lose loved ones than absolutely necessary,” Tierney said. “This is, this is a way to help with that with very little trade-off.”

This article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.