After a short but vigorous debate over individual rights and public safety, the Maryland Senate gave final approval today to a bill that would require drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts.
The bill now goes to the House of Delegates. It is expected to meet heavy opposition in the House Judiciary Committee, which killed two seat belt bills last year.
The latest measure, approved 27 to 16, would make it mandatory for motorists and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts unless they are exempted for medical reasons. Police could issue a charge of failing to wear a seat belt, which would carry a $20 fine, only if the motorist was stopped for another driving offense.
Last year 526 people were killed in auto accidents in Maryland -- an increase of 89 deaths over 1984. State police have estimated that 290 of those deaths might have been prevented had seat belts been worn.
There are mandatory seat belt laws in 16 states and the District of Columbia. The District's law, which went into effect Jan. 1, requires drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts. Offenders can be fined $15, but cannot be cited unless the vehicle is stopped for a separate offense.
A mandatory seat belt law was defeated in Virginia last year, but has been reintroduced this year with the support of Gov. Gerald L. Baliles.
Sen. Frank Shore (D-Montgomery), who wears a seat belt around his waist during many public appearances to demonstrate his support of a seat belt law, told senators that studies showed it takes 1.8 seconds to be thrown through a windshield in a high-speed accident, hit the pavement and die. He used his seat belt to show that it takes little longer than that to buckle up.
But other senators argued that was beside the point. "I believe it's dumb not to use them, but I feel that choice should be left up to the person who is driving that automobile," Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County) declared before casting his vote against the bill.
"In a democracy, people have the right to be stupid, if they care to be," added Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore).
But Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery), who introduced a mandatory seat belt bill in 1974 that passed the Senate but died in the House of Delegates, argued that other people are jeopardized by a driver's decision not to wear a seat belt. She cited an accident in California in which 11 children were killed when their bus driver, not wearing a seat belt, fell from his seat after a minor accident. The bus careened into oncoming traffic and the mass fatality followed, she said.
Several members of the House Judiciary Committee said they doubted sentiment there has changed in the past year.
Senators voting for the mandatory seat belt bill:
William H. Amoss (D-Harford), Raymond E. Beck (R-Carroll), Clarence W. Blount (D-Baltimore), F. Vernon Boozer (R-Baltimore County), Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County), James Clark Jr. (D-Howard), Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery), John W. Derr (R-Frederick).
B.W. Mike Donovan (D-Prince George's), Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's), C. Bernard Fowler (D-Calvert), Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's), Barbara Hoffman (D-Baltimore County), Nathan C. Irby Jr. (D-Baltimore), Frank J. Komenda (D-Prince George's), Sidney Kramer (D-Montgomery), Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery).
Thomas V. Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), Thomas P. O'Reilly (D-Prince George's), John A. Pica (D-Baltimore), Dennis F. Rasmussen (D-Baltimore County), Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery), S. Frank Shore (D-Montgomery), Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County), Decatur W. Trotter (D-Prince George's), Michael J. Wagner (D-Anne Arundel), Gerald W. Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel).
Walter M. Baker (D-Cecil), John N. Bambacus (R-Allegany), Joseph S. Bonvega (D-Baltimore), Troy Brailey (D-Baltimore), John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel), John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County), Victor Cushwa (D-Washington).
George W. Della Jr. (D-Baltimore), Philip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel), Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore), Joseph J. Long Sr. (D-Wicomico), Frederick Malkus (D-Dorchester), Catherine Riley (D-Harford), James C. Simpson (D-Charles), Charles H. Smelser (D-Frederick), Norman R. Stone (D-Baltimore County).
Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), Clarence M. Mitchell III (D-Baltimore), Thomas M. Yeager (D-Howard).