Bill would make those in back seats buckle up

Supporters say state Senate passage of a bill requiring all back-seat passengers in vehicles to buckle up won’t cost motorists anything and could help reduce serious injuries and deaths in crashes.

“It’s not going to be a hardship on anybody, but I think it’s going to save somebody’s life,” said retired Maui police Capt. Charles Hirata, who has advocated for such a measure for the past few years. “It’s not to write tickets. It’s basically to save lives.”

Hirata, who was commander of the police Traffic Section for 11 years, said he saw many back-seat passengers ejected and seriously injured or killed in crashes when they weren’t wearing seat belts.

“It’s really sad to say that a person’s life could have been saved if they had just buckled up,” Hirata said.

Senate Bill 4 was approved in a 23-1 vote Thursday by the state Senate. It would take effect when signed into law by the governor.

The bill changes current state law that requires seat belt use only by back-seat passengers under age 18, as well as drivers and front-seat passengers.

If the bill becomes law, Maui police would work to educate drivers about the measure, said Lt. Ricky Uedoi, commander of the Maui police Traffic Section.

He noted that police will be stepping up enforcement of seat belt violations during the annual Click It or Ticket campaign May 20 to June 2. The fine for a seat belt violation is $92.

Maui police had joined other police departments in the state to support what’s known as a “universal seat belt” proposal.

“A lot of people feel that if they ride in the back, they don’t need to wear a seat belt, not realizing you’re just as vulnerable to getting into a crash and sustaining injuries in the back seat,” Uedoi said.

Among collisions on Maui where using seat belts could have made a difference was one in March 2012 on Kula Highway, Uedoi said.

All five passengers were killed when they were ejected from a Dodge Neon that was heading downhill on Kula Highway near Noholoa Street, police said.

The Neon driver, who was the only one wearing a seat belt, survived.

“In that crash, some deaths could have been prevented,” Uedoi said.

Hirata recalled a crash in which an unbuckled back-seat passenger flew forward, causing greater injury to the person in the front seat.

“It was one of those life-altering injuries for the person in the back seat,” he said.

While no one died in that collision, Hirata said, “we have had several cases where people in the back seat were ejected out of the vehicle.”

Hirata, who now serves as child passenger safety coordinator in Maui County, advocated for the seat belt bill as coordinator of the nonprofit Safe Community of Maui.

When he feared the bill might be stalled in the Senate this session, Hirata called state Senate President Donna Mercado Kim to urge her to bring the bill to a vote.

“I was really impressed that she called me back,” he said. “I explained to her we should hear it.”

Maui state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran also helped, Hirata said.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, using lap and shoulder belts reduces the risk of fatal injury by 44 percent for back-seat passengers in cars and by 73 percent for back-seat occupants of vans and sport utility vehicles. In a crash impacting the front of a vehicle, drivers and front-seat passengers are at increased risk of injury from unbelted back-seat passengers, according to the institute, and in a side-impact crash, passengers sitting adjacent to unbelted passengers are at increased risk of injury. Exposure to unbelted occupants increases the risk of injury or death to other occupants in the vehicle by 40 percent, according to the institute.

“Everybody can benefit from buckling up,” Hirata said.

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia already have laws requiring all occupants to use seat belts, according to the insurance institute.

Hirata says he sees visitors from other states routinely using seat belts when riding in the back seats of rental vehicles.

“It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to get people to buckle up here,” he said.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at