Members of a key House committee, saying mandatory seat belt laws represent government meddling at its worst, killed legislation today that would have required the wearing of safety belts in front seats of cars.
The two 16-to-4 votes by the Judiciary Committee shifted the focus of a campaign to make Maryland the fourth state to enact a mandatory seat belt law to the Senate, where a similar proposal was bottled up late today by what promised to be a lengthy filibuster on an unrelated issue.
"The basic idea with a seat belt law is the government getting into every little thing, telling you what's best for yourself," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery).
He said passage of a mandatory seat belt law also could lead to "harassment" of drivers by law enforcement authorities and muddle the state's negligence laws. He predicted that the Senate would follow suit and kill the seat belt bill pending there.
S. Frank Shore (D-Montgomery), chief sponsor of the seat belt legislation in the Senate, said he was "shocked by the arbitrary and capricious vote" of the House committee. Shore, who for weeks has constantly worn a seat belt around the State House to advertise his position, said he was uncertain whether his bill would clear the full Senate.
However, several observers, noting that Shore's measure cleared the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on a 6-to-5 vote, said final approval was highly unlikely in any case.
Judicial Proceedings Chairman Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's), sharply criticized the House panel members and vowed to fight for the Senate legislation.
The House committee views were not "reflective of this legislature or the people of Maryland," Miller said. "There are 24 members of that committee: Eight of them are mossbacks, eight of them are reactionaries, and eight of them are people who read the bills but get outvoted."
The vote in the Maryland House committee came one day after a Virginia legislative panel voted 11 to 6 to approve a bill making seat belt use mandatory. The timing of that vote in Richmond struck more than one legislator here as ironic.
"To find out that Virginia has just approved this bill and we did not -- it boggles my mind," Shore said.
Agnes Beaton, executive director of an Upper Marlboro-based national group of women highway safety experts, said she was "devastated" by the House committee's vote. "The people in Maryland deserve better," said Beaton, who said her group would mount an "all-out" effort to force the House to reconsider.
But the House rarely reconsiders legislation, particularly bills as controversial as the seat belt measure or those defeated by margins as wide as that today.
Del. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Baltimore), a sponsor of one of the House seat belt bills, said he voted against it because there was "some hypocrisy to have a seat belt law when we didn't even have helmet laws for motorcycles." Cummings also said he foresaw "the possibility of abuse" by officials enforcing a requirement to wear safety belts.
Proponents of mandatory seat belt regulations say such laws cut down the number of accident fatalities by as much as half in some jurisdictions. Traffic experts estimate that only 12 to 15 percent of drivers use seat belts in Maryland, where 663 motorists died in 1983.
Staff Writer Laura Sessions Stepp contributed to this report.