In a major effort to squeeze a mandatory seat belt law through the committee that has rejected the bill several times in recent years, dozens of doctors, nurses and other citizens testified today that the legislators could save hundreds of lives a year.
Some witnesses at the House Judiciary Committee hearing described the horrors of the emergency rooms and some described the deaths of friends and relatives. Eager to overcome the objections of some committee members that a mandatory seat belt law would impinge on personal freedom, many told of huge cost to taxpayers.
Flo Dubinsky of Silver Spring told the committee how her son, a passenger in a car, was killed in an accident last year. He was ejected through the window, she said, and died of head injuries, while the car's driver, who was wearing a seat belt, was uninjured.
"If the House had passed this bill last year," she said, "I think my son would be alive today."
None of the several dozen witnesses before the committee testified against the bill.
Two weeks ago, the state Senate approved a mandatory seat belt bill similar to one it passed last year. But the House Judiciary Committee last year killed the bill by a vote of 14 to 4 after some members argued that seat belt use should be a matter of personal choice.
Some members of the committee, which currently has the Senate bill and five other variations before it, have said they see little signs that opinions on the issue have changed substantially since then.
The Senate's seat belt bill would impose a $20 fine on motorists and front-seat passengers not wearing seat belts. Rear-seat passengers, considered less likely to be killed or injured in traffic accidents, would not be forced to wear seat belts, and drivers could not be cited for not wearing seat belts unless they were stopped for other driving violations.
Mandatory seat belt laws have been enacted in 16 states and the District of Columbia. The Virginia legislature is also considering a mandatory seat belt law.
Of the 670 people killed on Maryland roads last year, state police statistics show that fewer than 40 were wearing seat belts. About 290 could have been saved had they been wearing seat belts, the police estimate.
Among others speaking in favor of a mandatory seat belt bill were House Speaker Benjamin Cardin, State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, State Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann and a spokesman for the Maryland State Police.
Dr. R Adams Cowley, head of the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Unit in Baltimore, told the committee that, "with the stroke of a pen you can do more good by preventing injury than we can."
"You have the chance to save more lives in your career than I can," said Dr. Ken Roberts, associate chief of pediatrics at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
If the committee fails to enact the seatbelt legislation, added Dr. Aneen Ranzy, a surgeon at the Shock Trauma Unit, its members should carefully read reports of road fatalities in future -- "consider that you might have done something that might have prevented that. I personally don't envy you the responsibility."
Committee Vice Chairman Arthur S. Alperstein (D-Baltimore County), the sponsor of one of the mandatory seat belt bills being considered, argued that the high cost to the taxpayers of injuries and deaths, and the loss of income that follows, makes seat belts a public issue and not one of personal choice. Other witnesses argued that all driving rules, such as speed limits and stop lights, restrict personal freedom but are necessary for road safety.