Virginia's House of Delegates approved a tougher seat belt law by one vote today, handing Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) a surprise victory in his campaign to get more people to buckle up.
But opponents of the measure, who call it an unnecessary government intrusion on people's private decisions, said they may try one last parliamentary maneuver to bring the bill back to the House floor and defeat it.
"As my old friend . . . once said, a bill can die a thousand deaths," said Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). "It's a terrible bill. It's a nannyism type bill."
But at least for now, the bill has passed both chambers of the General Assembly. And if it survives the challenge in the House and becomes law, police officers would be allowed to stop cars and issue $25 tickets for seat belt infractions without first noticing another traffic offense.
The District and 18 states, including Maryland, already allow police to ticket motorists for not wearing their safety belts, regardless of whether they have committed another traffic violation.
Warner hailed the 49 to 48 vote as "a breath of fresh air" and urged lawmakers to move on to other business, including passage of revisions to the state's two-year, $50 billion budget.
"A lot of folks' lives will be saved by this effort," Warner said after the vote, in which 16 Republicans joined Democrats to pass the bill. "This is the kind of bipartisan approach that I think Virginians want to see more of."
Warner praised House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who opposes a tougher seat belt law, for allowing a vote to take place today. And he urged Howell not to allow opponents another shot at defeating it.
"He promised a fair, up or down vote," Warner said. "We had that vote today. We ought to move on to other things."
Bills passed by the House with amendments, as this one did, are routinely sent back to the Senate for final ratification and then on to the governor for his signature. But Howell said opponents may try to reconsider the bill when the House convenes at 10 a.m. Friday.
Howell, who has complete control of the flow of legislation, said several Republicans have asked him to stop the bill from being sent to the Senate so they can try to defeat it. Howell said he believes that is a reasonable request.
"It wouldn't be out of the normal course to hold on to it," Howell said.
Warner had made passage of the seat belt law a cornerstone of his efforts to improve safety on the state's roads. Advocates say the law would increase the number of people who wear seat belts by up to 15 percent, cutting down on highway deaths by about 100 each year and preventing thousands of injuries annually.
Last month, opponents of the measure handed the governor a setback by defeating the bill in the House Transportation Committee on a 10 to 10 tie.
But Warner and a coalition of road safety advocates and police officers continued to press a nearly identical Senate version of the bill. Earlier this week, two rural Democrats helped get the bill out of the House committee and onto the floor.
"This is a good day," said David Kelly, a spokesman for the Virginia Coalition for Child Safety. "This is a bill whose time has come. When the bill is on the governor's desk, we'll relax a bit."
Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), the bill's chief patron, said he was relieved.
"Legislators like to believe that a large number of bills have a significant impact," Mims said. "In reality, only a few do, and this is one. This is one that really does deal with life and death."