In wake of 75-vehicle pileup, a bill to repeal Maine’s seat belt law

More than 70 vehicles were involved in a pileup on Interstate 95 that started Wednesday morning in Carmel and stretched into Etna. Gabor Degre | BDN

More than 70 vehicles were involved in a pileup on Interstate 95 that started Wednesday morning in Carmel and stretched into Etna. Gabor Degre | BDN

On Friday, just two days after one of the largest chain-reaction car crashes in state history, Maine lawmakers will consider repealing the seat belt law. Some of the crash victims will likely remain in local hospitals as trauma doctors and nurses travel to Augusta to oppose the bill.

The public hearing just happens to be scheduled for 9 a.m. tomorrow before the Legislature’s transportation committee.

While the seat belt mandate is a perennially divisive issue, tomorrow’s debate will be charged with fresh memories of the 75-vehicle pileup. One state trooper expressed shock yesterday that everyone escaped with their lives.

The Maine State Police haven’t said whether the 17 people injured in the crash were wearing seat belts. But Pret Bjorn, trauma coordinator for Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said seat belts likely saved lives yesterday.

“I guarantee that if not for seat belts, we would have seen much worse injuries from this incident, and probably at least a few deaths,” he said. “We won’t have hard data on this for days at least; but I was in the Emergency Department throughout the disaster response and personally met most of the victims brought to EMMC.  Everyone I talked to was wearing their seat belts, and I thanked them for it.”

EMMC treated 14 crash victims at its emergency department and two at its walk-in care clinic. Some were discharged, while others remain in serious condition.

Sen. Eric Brakey, a first-time Republican legislator from Auburn, sponsored the bill to repeal the seat belt law for those 18 and older. His proposal, LD 112, would require that only children be buckled up by law, similar to the requirement in neighboring New Hampshire.

State Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn. Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal

State Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn. Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal

To Brakey, the issue isn’t whether seat belts save lives, he said. It’s whether the government should mandate that we wear them.

“I hope that people were wearing their seat belts in that pileup,” Brakey said. “I believe that seat belts do save lives. But government’s job is to protect us from each other, not to protect us from our own personal decisions about our own personal safety.”

Brakey’s bill has bipartisan support, in the form of co-sponsor Democratic Rep. Charlotte Warren of Hallowell.

Maine’s trauma care providers banded together Thursday to express their opposition to the bill. EMMC, Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Maine Medical Center in Portland and LifeFlight of Maine, along with the Maine Public Health Association, released a statement saying “generations of data over millions of traveled miles” show that motorists wearing seat belts are about half as likely to suffer serious injuries or die in a car accident.

“That translates into hundreds of Mainers every year who don’t become trauma victims,” the statement said.

“While I understand that we don’t want to overly burden people with rules and regulations, there are sensible things we can do to help people help themselves,” said paramedic and LifeFlight of Maine Executive Director Tom Judge. “Seat belt laws are one of those things. Being thrown clear from a crash is a myth. The consequences of being ejected from a motor vehicle during an accident are severe and expensive. We must do all that we can to prevent senseless loss of life and extreme injury.”

While air bags help to reduce injuries sustained in car crashes, they’re no substitute for buckling up, the statement said.

Traffic deaths are at a 70-year low in Maine, with 2014 recorded as the safest year on Maine roads since World War II. State officials attribute the improvement to a number of factors, including police officers cracking down on speeders and seatbelt scofflaws. (Some have questioned whether the stepped up enforcement is about saving lives or meeting ticket quotas.)

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Last year, about 85 percent of Maine drivers wore seat belts. That’s up significantly since before buckle-up laws were first introduced in 1997, when only about half of motorists strapped in.

Maine Bureau of Highway Safety

Maine Bureau of Highway Safety

Maine’s law originally made failure to buckle up a secondary offense, meaning cops could ticket you for it only after pulling you over for another violation. In 2007, lawmakers voted to make it a primary offense. Since then, Maine police can stop you if they spot the driver or passengers without a seat belt.

Brakey, who said he buckles up “most of the time,” was displeased to be stopped at a seat belt checkpoint last summer in his hometown of New Gloucester.

“Is that a responsible use of taxpayer dollars?” he said. “Is that something worth stopping people over, interrupting their day when they may have very important business they may be attending to, when they’re doing no harm to anyone else?”

This post has been updated to correct a transcribing error in Sen. Brakey’s first quote.

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.