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Bills could require seat belts, increase WV Turnpike speed limit

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Bills moving through the House of Delegates could increase the speed limit on one section of the West Virginia Turnpike and make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense. But only one of those bills made it out of the House Roads and Transportation Committee.

House Bill 2108, sponsored by Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, would make it a primary offense for motor vehicle operators and passengers to not wear a seat belt — something that is currently a secondary offense. If the bill passes the Legislature, it means law enforcement can stop a vehicle and fine a driver for failure to wear a seat belt. Those who don't wear a seat belt will face a $25 fine.

Some members of the committee questioned during the Feb. 20 why a bill is necessary. In the past, West Virginia has ranked high in the number of drivers who wear their seat belts.

"But for the past four or five years it's been declining," said Bob Tipton, director of the Governor's Highway Safety Program. "It's been going down."

Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, pointed out during the meeting that 84.9 percent of residents wear their seat belts, which is in line with the national average. States with high seat belt usage rates can qualify for some federal safety grants. Cowles asked Tipton if he supported the bill because it would bring in federal money or because it could potentially save lives.

"I think it definitely will increase usage of seat belts and there is no question it will save lives and prevent injuries," Tipton responded.

"In every state that passes a primary law, the usage rate does go up," he later added. "By how much I couldn't tell you, but I would say 5-7 percent."

An amendment to the bill would allow those with medical conditions and mail truck operators to be exempted from the law. The bill passed out of committee, as amended, 14-4 and will now go to the House Judiciary Committee.

The Roads and Transportation Committee also looked at legislation that would increase the speed limit on the West Virginia Turnpike between the Chelyan and Mossy exits. The speed limit on that nearly 30-mile stretch of road is currently 60 miles per hour, but the speed limit on other parts of the road is 70 miles per hour. House Bill 2472 would increase the speed limit between the Chelyan and Mossy exits.

Greg Barr, the general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, said the state's commissioner of highways sets the speed limits on the Turnpike. In 1998, Gov. Cecil Underwood appointed a highway safety task force to study the effects of lowering the speed limit on that stretch of road from 70 miles per hour to 60 after several accidents took place, most involving tractor-trailers.

"If you don't drive it very often from mile post 60 Mossy to mile post 86 Chelyan, there are a lot of slopes and curves — very curvy," Barr said.

That's partly because that section of road was designed in the late 1970s to early 1980s, a time when the federal government required a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. That stretch of road is engineered for a speed limit of 60 miles per hour. Underwood's task force placed advisory signs at 33 curves on the road, reducing the speed limit to 55 miles per hour in those places.

One delegate asked about the possibility of a split speed limit — 70 miles per hour for cars and 60 miles per hour for big trucks. Barr said that could cause even more problems.

"The task force looked into that," he said. "They thought if they left it at 65 for cars and 60 for trucks, it would lower the amount of turnovers."

But, Barr said, split speed limits means cars would be more likely to weave in and out to pass by slower tractor-trailers. Nearly 20 percent of Turnpike traffic is tractor-trailers, so weaving cars would create a bigger safety issue.

Delegate Linda Good Philips, D-Wyoming, moved to table the bill until the committee could devote more time to the issue. The bill did not move from committee.