The decades-long campaign to coax Georgia motorists and their passengers to buckle up could culminate in a new law this year requiring everyone in a vehicle to wear seat belts.
Current state law does not require adults to buckle up in the back seat. But a state Senate committee has recommended legislation that would end that exemption. And though top lawmakers have been noncommittal, a new Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey shows Georgians overwhelmingly favor the idea.
A whopping 90% of registered voters surveyed support requiring everyone in a vehicle to buckle up. It’s the surest sign yet that opposition to seat belt requirements — which at times has made lawmakers reluctant to impose new laws — is fading.
Traffic safety advocate Bob Dallas isn’t surprised. He believes decades of education and seat belt enforcement have made a difference.
“There are very few things out there that poll at 90%,” said Dallas, a former director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
>> Interactive: Complete poll results
Numerous studies show that seat belts save lives. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, nationwide there were 803 deaths of unbelted rear-seat occupants age 8 and older in 2018. More than 400 would have survived if they had been belted, the study found.
In 2015 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that deaths and injuries that resulted from the failure to use seat belts cost more than $10 billion annually in medical care, lost productivity and other injury-related costs.
Allen Poole, the director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said seat belts prevent rear-seat passengers from being ejected in a rollover crash or from injuring other vehicle occupants.
“If everyone inside that vehicle is constrained by seat belts, your chance of being alive (after a crash) goes up tremendously,” Poole said.
But only 19 states and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement rear seat-belt laws — that means police officers can issue a citation if they spot someone not buckled up. An additional 11 states have secondary enforcement laws, in which unbelted rear-seat passengers can be ticketed only if officers have another reason to stop the vehicle.
Georgia’s requirements have evolved since lawmakers approved the first seat belt law in 1988. That law required front-seat occupants to buckle up. But it exempted vehicles mounted on truck chassis. And it made violations of the law a secondary offense.
>> PDF: Poll crosstabs
>> More: AJC poll archive
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, lawmakers made seat belt violations a primary offense. And in 2010 they eliminated the pickup exemption.
That timeline may reflect the gradual acceptance of seat belts by the public. But not everyone is a fan.
Patti Lewis of Buford doesn’t wear a seat belt when riding in the back seat. She’s 5 foot, 4 inches tall, and she said many vehicles don’t have a height adjustment for back-seat belts.
Lewis said she spends most of her time “either being strangled and annoyed by the seat belt riding up on my neck or holding it so that it doesn’t do so.”
She doesn’t support a law requiring adults to buckle up in the back seat. She said that “while the nanny-state proponents want to save everyone from themselves and from others, I don’t care to be wrapped in a sheet of bubble wrap.”
“I am an adult who can judge risks and possibilities and make a decision for myself,” Lewis said.
The AJC survey suggests the overwhelming majority of Georgia residents support requiring everyone to buckle up. That support was consistent across partisan, ideological, gender, race, age, income and educational groups.
Katherine Helms Cummings of Atlanta was wearing a seat belt when she was struck head-on by another vehicle in 1986. She was driving. Her husband, a passenger, also was buckled up. And their infant daughter was in a car seat.
Her husband and daughter were relatively unscathed. But the vehicle struck on the driver’s side, and Cummings spent three weeks in the hospital for a broken pelvis, a shattered wrist and other injuries.
“They said, clearly, the seat belt saved my life,” she said. “No doubt about it.”
Cummings supports seat-belt requirements. And she doesn’t buy personal liberty arguments against them — noting the health care and insurance costs associated with crashes.
“Well, it costs everybody more if you’re injured when it could have been prevented,” she said.
It’s unclear whether such support will translate into legislative action.
Last year lawmakers introduced multiple bills that would require adults in the back seat to buckle up. None passed, though the Senate created a committee to study the issue.
That committee recently recommended the legislation, citing traffic safety studies and the costs associated with the failure to use seat belts.
The bills are still pending. But legislative leaders have not offered full-throated endorsements.
“I’d have to look at it,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told reporters at a recent press conference.
“I know in our household, all of our kids buckle up, for sure,” Duncan said. “I’ve got a new sense of this. I’ve got a 17-year-old son who’s driving. We’ll certainly look at that issue and try to make the best decision possible out of this office.”
House Speaker David Ralston likewise seemed to like the idea of seat belts without endorsing legislation at his own press conference.
“I have not seen that report,” the speaker said. “I would want to see what the data says in terms of the benefit from that.”
“We’ll look at it,” Ralston said. “Whatever we can do at the end of the day to make driving safer for Georgians is something we have to do.”
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