ANNAPOLIS – Howard County Police Officer Matthew Tanis has many difficult memories of telling families that a loved one has died in a car crash, but never thought he’d have that talk with his own wife.
A year ago, Tanis’ sister-in-law, Jean Loun, died after being thrown from her car in a serious accident. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
“It was at that time that I realized for the first time what it felt to be a victim,” Tanis said.
“I knew when I saw the vehicle that if she had been wearing her seat belt, she could have survived,” he said. “It was a survivable accident.”
Tanis told his story Tuesday at a press conference held by Gov. Parris N. Glendening announcing that a new seat belt law would come into effect Wednesday in Maryland. The law allows police to stop and issue citations to motorists solely for not wearing their seat belts.
Glendening, who said the law could save as many as 50 lives and prevent up to 2,200 serious accident-related injuries per year, credits seat belts for saving his own life in two accidents.
In one, after a car in which he was riding broadsided another vehicle, “I walked off with only a slight bruise on my knee,” he said. “I know that serious injury was avoided because we were wearing seat belts.”
Del. Joanne C. Bensen, D-Prince George’s, who co-sponsored the bill in the Legislature, dispelled concerns that it could facilitate harassment of drivers by police.
“This bill is not about being punitive,” she said. “It’s not about harassment by police. Police don’t need a bill if they’re intending on harassing someone.”
Sen. Ida G. Ruben, Montgomery County, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, added that the state’s primary intention is not to impose upon individual rights to decide about seat belt use.
“Some people think we’re trying to play ‘big brother,’ but we’re not,” she said. “We just want to see people get home safe.”
Glendening noted that car accidents in Maryland also take a financial toll on the state’s resources to the tune of $138 million per year.
Col. David B. Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, said he expects the new law to yield a significant increase in seat belt non-use citations. Currently, Maryland police issue about 250,000 citations annually.
“This is your only warning from the Maryland state police,” he said.
Violation of the new seat belt law carries a fine of no more than $25, but Barbara Beckett, executive director of the Maryland committee for safety belt use says the consequences for non- compliance are far more serious than they appear. “At the most, violation of this law will cost you your life — not $25,” she warned. -30-