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Of the 186 deaths on Montana roads in 2017, 84 were people who were not wearing seat belts, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.

A Republican lawmaker from Kalispell is hoping to lower that number.

Rep. Frank Garner is the sponsor of House Bill 49, which would allow law enforcement to pull over a vehicle if someone inside is not wearing a seat belt. It would also increase the fine for not wearing a seat belt from $20 to $45.

In Montana, the law requires all people in a moving car to wear a seat belt. However, law enforcement can only cite a person for not wearing a seat belt if the car has been stopped for another reason.

Garner, a retired Kalispell police chief, said the Legislature has tackled and debated the issue in the past, but his legislation is unique because the goal is to get people to wear seat belts. He said he’s seen what happens when people don’t.

“I think we need to find a way for Montana to improve our compliance with seat belt use,” Garner said. “And one of the ways we know that works is having primary seat belt legislation.”

Under the bill, offenders wouldn’t be fined until their third violation. Second-time offenders could get off with a warning if they complete a Department of Transportation course teaching the benefits of use of a seat belt.

The bill has a sunset date in Sept 2023, which Garner said allows the Legislature to make sure the bill is doing what it was meant to do.

“This is one of those things where we want to prove to the people of the state that it can be used appropriately and increase compliance,” he said.

The bill does not yet have a fiscal note.

Nanette Gilbertson, executive director for Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, said the association has historically looked at primary seat belt laws as a positive step toward safety. However, Gilbertson said the association has not had an opportunity to decide whether they would support the bill during the upcoming session.

In 2017, observed seat belt usage in Montana was 78 percent, compared to the 90 percent national average, according to MDT. Over the last 10 years, more than 75 percent of people who were ejected during a crash died from their injuries.

The Legislature begins on Monday.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2630. Follow him on Twitter @TGIFreddy.

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