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After years of battles, the Senate gave final passage Tuesday to a bill to toughen enforcement of Utah's seat-belt laws.

Senators voted 17-11 to pass HB79 — which the sponsor says will save an estimated 35 lives a year ­— and sent it to Gov. Gary Herbert for his signature.

The bill would make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense, meaning officers could stop and cite people directly for the lapse. Currently, Utah has a "secondary" law for those 18 and older. A $45 ticket can be issued only when an officer stops a vehicle for another reason.

This proposal has been blocked for years by lawmakers and groups that argued it interfered too much with personal freedom.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, sponsored the bill arguing it does not infringe on freedom any more than enforcing laws against running red lights, speeding or making improper turns. He also said he has investigated too many fatal accidents in which seat belts easily could have prevented deaths.

Perry was ecstatic after the vote. "After so many years, words fail me to say just how excited I am. This bill will save lives."

He had dedicated the legislation to two 16-year-olds who might have been saved by wearing seat belts, Tyler Stuart and Mandi Brown of Brigham City. Perry investigated the crash where they were killed. Stuart was a family friend — and Perry had to break the news to his mother.

"You don't know how much this means to Melissa Brown and Kelly Stuart," the teenagers' mothers who helped lobby for the bill, Perry said. "They worked so hard for this."

HB79 was somewhat diluted as it wended through the Legislature, allowing only a warning for the first offense.

It would also waive a subsequent first fine if a driver agreed to take a free, online safety course. Perry said those provisions show the bill's emphasis is education, rather than punishment.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, Senate sponsor of the bill, said with such measures, the bill essentially "provides the opportunity to mount an education campaign" by police.

In earlier debate, Perry said surveys show "17 percent of Utah drivers do not wear seat belts, but cause 50 percent of the fatalities."

Unbuckled drivers often become projectiles in accidents, he said, and kill or injure others in the car. He also said many avoidable accidents are caused by drivers failing to wear a seat belt who lose control during swerving.