BISMARCK — An ultra-conservative group of North Dakota lawmakers has propelled forward a bill that would do away with the state's seat belt requirement for most residents. The proposal cuts against longstanding efforts by other legislators to tighten the existing seat belt law.
Under House Bill 1257, adult drivers and occupants would no longer have to buckle up in the car, though the safety measure would still be mandatory for those under 18. After hearing arguments about public safety and personal freedoms, the House Transportation Committee voted 8-6 on Thursday, Jan. 28, to give the bill a "do pass" recommendation as it heads to the House floor.
The proposal, sponsored by Hazelton Republican Rep. Jeff Magrum, is viewed as a long shot to end up on the governor's desk by the admission of committee chairman Rep. Dan Ruby, a Minot Republican who supports the bill.
The Senate narrowly passed legislation last week that would take seat belt enforcement in the opposite direction by making failure to wear one a primary reason for police officers to pull over vehicles. A similar bill passed the Senate in 2019, but failed in the House. If Magrum's proposal makes it out of the House, the Senate would almost surely sink it.
Magrum said his bill aims to represent North Dakotans who feel the government shouldn't tell residents how to behave. The rancher and plumber said he doesn't wear a seat belt unless the road is icy or he's hauling a load, adding that "in agriculture, you don't have to wear one."
"We can all agree seat belts are good, but so is freedom," Magrum said. "I don't need no police officer to stop me and say I have to put it on."
Fargo Democratic Rep. Karla Rose Hanson noted there is overwhelming evidence that compulsory seat belt wearing translates to fewer traffic deaths. She asked Magrum "why would we make this change knowing that North Dakotans' lives will be lost?"
Magrum replied that there is risk associated with all kinds of activities, saying "I'm not willing to give up my freedom for safety."
Bismarck Republican Rep. Rick Becker, a bill co-sponsor and founder of the far-right Bastiat Caucus, said he believes stronger seat belt penalties prevent deaths, but it shouldn't be the state's job to save people from themselves. Becker added that the state should "get off the fence" with its current "secondary enforcement" law, in which drivers can be given a seat belt citation only if they're pulled over for another violation.
A procession of state officials from the Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Highway Patrol spoke against Magrum's proposal on Thursday, arguing the bill would result in less seat belt wearing and more traffic deaths if passed. A survey taken last year by the state Department of Transportation found that only about 84% of North Dakota drivers and passengers wear seat belts — well below the national rate of 91%.
Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Wade Kadrmas said 42 unbelted people died last year in traffic collisions compared to just 19 who were wearing seat belts. Department of Transportation safety chief Karin Mongeon said seat belts clearly save lives and the state should move toward more enforcement rather than less.