Georgia Senate panel favors tougher seat belt law

A Georgia Senate committee will recommend rules requiring everyone to buckle up. It’s unclear whether such a bill can pass the General Assembly.

A Georgia Senate committee will recommend rules requiring everyone to buckle up. It’s unclear whether such a bill can pass the General Assembly.

A Georgia Senate committee will support tougher seat belt rules, requiring everyone in a passenger vehicle to buckle up.

Currently, Georgia requires drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts, and anyone 17 or under in back seats must be restrained. But adults are not required to buckle up in the back seat.

The chances of getting a universal seat belt requirement through the General Assembly in the upcoming legislative session remain unclear. In the past, many lawmakers have resisted seat belt requirements.

But on Wednesday, most members of the Senate Study Committee on Passenger Vehicle Seat Safety Belts voiced support for requiring everyone to buckle up. They cited recent testimony that shows seat belts save lives and prevent serious injuries.

“It’s just a loophole that we need to close,” said state Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, the sponsor of Senate Bill 160, which would make the change.

Georgia is one of 20 states that don’t require adults in the back seats of vehicles to buckle up. Safety advocates say many people are paying with their lives.

In 2017, 44% of the 1,057 people who died in crashes on Georgia roads were not wearing seat belts. Nationwide, 43% of people who died in crashes were not buckled up.

Georgia has been slow to embrace seat belt requirements.

Lawmakers adopted the state’s first seat belt law in 1988, requiring front-seat occupants to buckle up. But the law exempted vehicles mounted on truck chassis. And it made violations of the law a secondary offense — police couldn’t cite someone unless they had violated another traffic law.

In 1990, lawmakers clarified the law, specifying that the occupants of pickup trucks were exempt from seat belt requirements. Three years later they approved a bill requiring minors to be restrained.

In 1996, they made seat belt violations a primary offense — meaning police could cite motorists if they saw they were not strapped in. And in 2010 they eliminated the pickup truck exemption.

Four of the five members of the Senate study committee say they support requiring everyone to wear seat belts. The fifth member — state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens — did not attend Wednesday’s meeting and did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

No one testified against tougher rules in recent committee hearings. In the past, opponents have cited personal liberty concerns. On Wednesday, state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, the chairman of the study committee, said those concerns are outweighed by medical and emergency responder costs borne by everyone when someone not wearing a seat belt is involved in a crash.

“I realize there is a concern for some about personal liberty and freedom — being told what they can do and cannot do in a car,” Albers said. “However, if that person is not wearing their seat belt, and they are in a major crash, they are costing our society.”

Anderson introduced her bill earlier this year, but it went nowhere in the Senate. Instead, the Senate created the study committee, which is expected to issue its formal recommendations by Dec. 1