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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Georgia Contemplates New Seat Belt Law

State Budget Crisis Forcing Seat Belt Law For Pickup Trucks To Center Stage

If Georgia legislators pass a new law requiring adults in pickup trucks to wear seat belts, it would instantly give the state about $4 million in federal highway funds.

In what has become an annual crusade, supporters of the change present Georgia lawmakers with frightening statistics about the number of lives that could be saved and accidents avoided if the law is passed. Yet Georgia has held out, and is now the last state in the nation to specifically exempt adults in pickups from wearing seatbelts.

But Georgia's faces a budget deficit that could exceed $2 billion. The state could spend the $4 million grant to fund road safety programs while saving in the ballpark of $62 million each year in accident-related expenses like medical costs. New Hampshire, with no seat belt requirement for all adult drivers, was denied $3.7 million in grants in 2007.

A Republican physician who has long championed the change, Georgia state Sen. Don Thomas said, "The budget crisis will give this more momentum. It's better to prevent this than to plan funerals."

The federal government has long tied seat belt laws to highway money. In Georgia, minors and adults are required to wear seat belts in all vehicles except pickups.

Requiring adults to wear seat belts can help save lives, of that there's little argument. It's estimated by the National Highway Safety Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation that changing the law would save 21 lives and prevent 300 injuries annually.

Insurance companies and auto associations have long supported the changes, and at the moment no lobbyists are actively working against the effort. But for years, attempts to pass a tougher seat belt law have been blocked by rural legislators who view the rule as unnecessary regulation.

"Adults ought to be smart enough to wear seat belts. We should be responsible enough to do it without having a state law that says so," said state Sen. Jeff Chapman, a Republican from rural Brunswick who voted against the proposal last year, and will vote against it this year.

Pickup drivers in rural parts of the state agree with that sentiment.

Dennis Lewis, a 50-year-old pickup driver who runs a concession stand in southeast Georgia, said, "I use common sense in my life, and in common sense, I'm going to use a seat belt. Do I need another law on the books to say I must use seat belts? I don't think so."

In 2007, Indiana passed the adult seat belt law for pickups, but the state once took a similar position as Georgia.

In recent years, the Georgia Senate has passed proposals to change the seat belt requirements, but the measures often were bottled up in the House. House Speaker Glenn Richardson did not comment on the measure.

The time is ripe to at least seriously consider a change, says a growing number of political heavyweights.

The Senate would give the measure a "fair hearing and consideration," said a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Last month, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue said that a debate was appropriate.

"I don't necessarily think we ought to do it for the federal money," Perdue said. "But the kids I'm concerned about are those that are in the modern-day pickups, when they get a crowd of friends in there, and they're fooling around."

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