House votes to eliminate seat belt exemption for pickups

After a years-old fight that divided rural and urban lawmakers, the General Assembly has decided Georgia should join the rest of the nation in requiring adults in pickup trucks to use seat belts.

By a vote of 132-29, the House passed legislation Tuesday that would require pickup truck drivers to abide by the same seat belt requirements that have applied to car drivers in Georgia since 1988.

"The fact that seat belts save lives is undisputed, and our constituents want us to pass this bill," Rep. Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro) said before the vote.

For years, the Senate pushed legislation to remove the seat belt exemption for pickup trucks, only to see the change blocked by rural lawmakers who controlled the Georgia House. Tom Murphy made clear when he was House speaker that he didn't believe seat belts should be mandatory, and his successor, Glenn Richardson, took the same position. Both kept seat belt bills from reaching the House floor for a vote.

Earlier this year, the Senate passed a new seat belt bill, and new House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) did not object to it being brought to a floor vote.

Some rural House members continued to resist a change. House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts (R-Ocilla) proposed an amendment that would have lessened the seat belt restrictions for all drivers. Since 1996, Georgia has had a primary seat belt law, meaning a motorist can be stopped by law enforcement if his only offense is not wearing a seat belt.

Under Roberts' amendment, any driver could be cited for not wearing a seat belt, but only if he or she had been pulled over for another traffic offense.

Channell argued that passage of Roberts' measure would be a step backward for the state, and the amendment was defeated.

Roberts and the bill's supporters offered differing opinions on whether passage of the bill would allow the state to collect more federal highway money.

Sen. Don Thomas (R-Dalton), the bill's sponsor, has said Georgia should save at least 100 lives annually by requiring adult pickup drivers to wear seat belts.

The state also should see a reduction in injuries and emergency room costs, said Rep. Kevin Levitas (D-Atlanta). "It is time for us to get in line with other states," Levitas said.

Rep. Tom McCall (R-Elberton) said, "I don't understand why we have to be a nanny state."

The bill retains the exemption for agricultural vehicles. It now goes to the desk of the governor.