To Maryland officials who pride themselves on a progressive approach to solving social problems, legislation to mandate the wearing of seat belts seemed, at first, to strike all the right chords.
It had "Mom" -- the Maryland Extension Homemakers Council, among the groups pushing the legislation -- and, if not apple pie, at least a big sheet cake decorated with "Buckle Up for Love" by a women's traffic safety lobby. More importantly, sponsors believed, it had the overwhelming evidence that wearing seat belts saves lives and prevents serious injuries.
The bill lacked only one crucial thing: enough votes on the House Judiciary Committee. Last Thursday the committee, which had killed a House version of the bill in January, defeated the Senate bill by a resounding 14-to-4 vote, ending hopes of making Maryland the sixth state to pass such a law.
Members of the committee, who alternately relish and resent their collective reputation as the arch-traditionalists of the Maryland General Assembly, give a variety of reasons for their distaste for the mandatory seat belt measure: fear of police abuse, concern about being able to enforce the law and about muddling state negligence laws. Some said more constituents opposed the measure than supported it.
One Beltsville man wrote to Del. Pauline Menes (D-Prince George's), a member of the committee: "Perhaps we would have a mandatory program requiring that every person eat the Recommended Daily Allowance of the basic four food groups. That way we could legislate good health."
Several legislators voiced a dislike of the interest in the measure by auto manufacturers, who, under pressure from federal transportation officials, are urging states to pass such laws so the automakers will not be forced to install air bags or other passive restraints by 1989. The car industry will be exempted if states with two-thirds of the nation's population pass the laws.
But most of all, committee members said, the decision seemed to come down to the group's almost institutionalized distrust of the new, the vogue and the compulsory.
"I oppose mandating just about anything to anybody," declared Del. Jerry Hyatt (D-Montgomery), a committee member who voted against the measure. "I think government should stay out of people's lives as much as possible."
Del. Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery), chairman of the committee, said, "I just don't like the mandatory aspect of it. Everything we get we're telling people how to run their life, how to live. I think there's resentment of it . . . . There was no public pressure for it; it's the auto manufacturers."
Such arguments puzzle, even anger proponents of the measure, who say they were persuaded simply by the benefits of seat belt use. The Maryland State Police, the Department of Transportation, the Washington Hospital Center's MedSTAR Shock Trauma Unit, medical societies and safety groups all offered statistics showing that deaths from traffic accidents could be cut by half if seat belts were widely used.
In 1984, according to state police statistics, of 645 people killed on Maryland highways 46 were wearing seat belts and 442 were not, although 146 were pedestrians or cyclists. Police said that in 231 of the cases less serious injuries could have resulted if seat belts had been worn.
"I feel as if there's security with the seat belt. I think it saves lives; I think that's the bottom line," said Del. Jerry Perry (D-Prince George's), one of four committee members who supported the House and Senate bills. Others argued that society pays the cost of personal negligence in the form of insurance and disability payments, so the state has a right to enforce a minor infringement of personal freedom.
That evidence seemed to carry the bills through the Senate, although there was initial opposition there as well. Some members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee sought to thwart Maryland from meeting the federal guidelines. They held up the bill until they could amend it so as not to comply with the federal regulations in minor ways -- cutting the fine from $25 to $20, for example.
Meanwhile, lobbying groups started applying gentle pressure. A safety group distributed belts as gifts to legislators, one of whom, Sen. Frank Shore (D-Montgomery), took to wearing the belt constantly as a sign of his support. A homemakers' group ringed the Capitol with a human belt and began urging neighbors to send letters of support. Finally the bill squeaked out of the Senate committee on a 6-to-5 vote.
While the bill was delayed in the Senate, the House took up the measure. A lobbying group financed by auto dealers and builders announced at a luncheon the day before the House hearing that it would commit $50,000 to the effort.
They never got the chance to show their stuff -- two days later the House committee killed the House bills in surprise votes. And although an unexpectedly strong margin of the full Senate later adopted a watered-down version, saying motorists may be charged for a seat belt offense only if they are stopped for another violation, the House committee, after a month's delay, again refused to go along.
"I put the bill in 10 years ago and it was laughed off the floor," said Del. Arthur S. Alperstein (D-Baltimore County). "Sometimes they just have philosophical beliefs, and that's hard to overcome. Hey, it took me 10 years to get mandatory photos on the driver's licenses. Sometimes it's just a question that the bill's time hasn't come."