BISMARCK — The North Dakota Senate has approved a bipartisan bill that would allow police to pull over a vehicle if the driver or any passengers are not wearing seat belts, but the measure will likely face stiffer opposition in the House of Representatives.

The state currently has a secondary enforcement law, which means drivers over 18 can't be pulled over solely for not wearing a seat belt. They can be issued a ticket for being unbuckled, but only if an officer pulls them over for a separate offense.

The 28-18 up-vote in the Senate chamber on Wednesday, Jan. 20, means North Dakota is one step closer to joining the other 35 states with primary enforcement seat belt laws. Senate Bill 2121 will cross over to the House when the chambers exchange legislation next month.

The North Dakota Senate approved on Wednesday, Jan. 20, a bill that would allow police to pull over a vehicle if the driver or any passengers are not wearing seat belts. Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature
The North Dakota Senate approved on Wednesday, Jan. 20, a bill that would allow police to pull over a vehicle if the driver or any passengers are not wearing seat belts. Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature

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Senators approved a comparable proposal by a slimmer margin in 2019, but the Republican-led House sunk the bill, with many opponents arguing personal freedoms should protect those who reject the safety feature. Lawmakers have unsuccessfully introduced similar legislation several other times over the last decade.

The bill proposed this time around originally carried a $50 fine for violators, but it has been amended down to a nonmoving violation with a $20 fee.

Sen. Michael Dwyer, R-Bismarck, spoke in support of the bill on Wednesday, saying that law enforcement and first responders are "begging" the state to toughen its seat belt laws.

"Law enforcement stated emphatically that this is not about writing tickets. They have plenty to do, but they know and we all know that if we pass this bill, people will increase their use of seat belts and it will save lives," Dwyer said. "This bill is the only bill we will consider that will save lives without costing a dollar of taxpayer money."

No senators spoke against the bill.

Wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of dying in a car accident by 45%, according to a 2015 study, and other analyses have found residents are more likely to buckle up in states with primary enforcement seat belt laws.

A survey taken last year by the state Department of Transportation found that only about 84% of North Dakota drivers and passengers wear seat belts — well below the national rate of 91%.

Lawmakers approved the current law on the books in 1993, but Democratic bill sponsor Rep. Corey Mock, said the rule was intended to solve the enforcement issue of officers pulling over vehicles for seat belt violations only to discover passengers were wearing lap belts. All cars sold in the U.S. are required by regulators to have shoulder belts.