Legislation aims to tighten North Dakota seat belt law

January 12, 2021

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A bipartisan group of lawmakers want to tighten North Dakota’s seat belt law to allow police to pull over anyone they see driving unbuckled — or any of their passengers.

It’s the latest and the most stringent in a decades-old and contentious effort to encourage more seat belt use among North Dakota drivers. Advocates of the so-called primary-enforcement idea have been rebuffed repeatedly in the Republican-led Legislature.

Thirty-four states already have a primary enforcement seat belt law.

Williston GOP Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, the primary sponsor of SB2121, said he is not deterred by the history of previous legislation. He said he was asked to sponsor the bill by a group of law enforcement and safety advocates who “want to bring down crash deaths and serious injuries.”

A tougher seat-belt law would promote safety for all drivers, he said.

“I’m happy to be a part of it,” he said.

North Dakota’s current law is a ″secondary enforcement″ provision, meaning that police may not pull over a motorist simply because they see him or her driving without a seat belt. Police first must see the driver committing another violation such as speeding. State law already allows authorities to pull over drivers younger than 18 if they are seen driving unbuckled.

Under the proposed legislation, drivers could be pulled over if anyone in a vehicle is observed unbuckled. The fine would be $50.

North Dakota’s seat-belt law has much history. The Legislature initially approved a law in 1989 but it was repealed in a referendum election. The law then allowed police to stop motorists if they were observed driving without a seat belt.

Lawmakers approved the current law in 1993. It also was referred to a statewide vote, and narrowly upheld a year later. Opponents of the legislation then circulated an initiative petition to repeal the law; it failed in November 1994.

North Dakota’s GOP-led Legislature has failed to change the law since, believing expanding it is a personal freedom issue and it should be left alone. Opponents also have argued that a stricter law is not needed because seat belt use in North Dakota has increased without it.

North Dakota had about 84% seat belt usage in 2019, up from 48% two decades earlier and one of the lowest in the country, according to state statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The national average for seat belt usage was 90% in 2019, the NHTSA said.