Georgia is last state to hold out on pickup seat belt legislation

ATLANTA --- Just about every state has responded to the pickup's rising popularity by requiring adults to wear seat belts in trucks -- except Georgia.

The fight over seat belts is a familiar one in Georgia, waged just about every year in the state Legislature with no resolution. At least three House bills to require seat belts in pickups are pending, and the Senate has already adopted its own proposal.

But there's hope this year that lawmakers could enact the changes, now that Georgia has emerged as the lone holdout state that doesn't require adults in pickups to wear seat belts.

"This is the year it should pass," said Sen. Don Thomas, a physician who sponsored one of the bills. "It's embarrassing. Instead of making our state look tough, it makes us look foolish."

There's little doubt that the laws could prevent dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries each year. On a nuts-and-bolts level, they can save millions of dollars in medical costs, not to mention help secure more federal highway money.

There are no known lobbyists lined up against the effort, but attempts to pass tougher seat belt laws in Georgia were blocked for years by lawmakers -- particularly those from rural counties -- who said wearing seat belts is a matter of personal freedom.

"I'm a free-spirited guy. I believe that people should wear their seat belts. I just don't believe the government should tell you to," said state Sen. Jeff Mullis, a north Georgia Republican who voted against the requirements.

The sentiment strikes a chord with many in south Georgia.

"We got enough laws on the books for law enforcement to enforce, and the seat belt law is another way to tack on something," said Phil Burrell, a 34-year-old pickup driver who lives in Sylvester, a southwest Georgia town of about 6,000.

He said he'd abide by the new law if it passes, but he's not sure it would make him safer.

"When the good Lord calls me home," he said, "a seat belt ain't going to stop it."

State Rep. Calvin Hill, a north Georgia Republican, figured he had a great shot to pass seat belt legislation two years ago. Insurers, public-safety groups and auto associations lined up in favor of his bill, and he armed lawmakers with statistics on the number of lives a tweaking of the law could save.

The bill never made it to a vote. "There's still, throughout rural Georgia, the thought that having a seat belt on a pickup is such an invasive thing on their privacy," Mr. Hill said.

Indiana used to be aligned with Georgia on the pickup seat belts question, but it enacted a law last year requiring seat belts in trucks after lawmakers agreed to also block police from using checkpoints to enforce seat belt compliance.

Mr. Thomas concedes a compromise in Georgia might be trickier.

"They don't want government interfering with what we do. But what's the difference (between) buckling up in a pickup truck and buckling up in a car?" asked Mr. Thomas, a Republican. "We talk about being conservatives and saving lives and saving taxpayer dollars. This is an excellent opportunity to prove it."

The latest report on seat belt use by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that seat belts in pickups helped reduce risk of fatal injury by 60 percent, and that about seven in 10 people who died in crashes involving pickups were not wearing a seat belt.

The federal government has long tied highway money to seat belt restrictions. Georgia missed out on $20.7 million that was available under a 2005 federal highway law because it didn't change its law. AAA estimates the state could save $17 million over 10 years in medical costs by changing the seat belt law.

SEAT BELT SITUATION

BACKGROUND: Nearly every year, the Georgia Legislature struggles with seat belt requirements for pickups. With Indiana enacting a law last year on the issue, Georgia is the last state lacking such a law.

THE LATEST:

- There's hope that 2008 could be the year lawmakers enact changes because Georgia is the lone holdout.

- A recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that seat belts in pickups helped reduce the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent.

- Demographics could drive new legislation as metro Atlanta's population swells into surrounding areas, perhaps eroding traditional rural resistance to the law.

AGAINST CHANGE: Some lawmakers, particularly those from rural counties, have blocked previous proposals, saying wearing seat belts is a matter of personal freedom.