ATLANTA - A bid to require adults in pickup trucks to buckle their seat belts was narrowly defeated by a House panel Tuesday, defying supporters of stronger safety standards that have been adopted by much of the nation.
The House Consumer Affairs Subcommittee swiftly voted 4-3 to reject the measure after more than an hour of testimony from physician's groups, insurance executives and highway safety officials backing the change.
The vote was a stinging defeat for advocates pressing for the changes in Georgia, the last state in the nation to specifically exempt adults in pickups from buckling up. The Senate has already adopted the changes, but the effort has long been held up in the House.
Supporters say the change could prevent dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries annually while helping the state save an estimated $62 million each year in accident-related expenses. It also could help Georgia secure about $4 million in highway safety grants.
"It's better to prevent trauma than to treat trauma," said Republican state Sen. Don Thomas, a Dalton physician who sponsored the measure. "It's better to prevent deaths than to plan funerals."
No lobbyists are actively working against the effort. But the attempts to pass a tougher seat belt law were blocked by rural lawmakers who see the rule as unnecessary regulation.
The proposal is not dead yet, as the subcommittee could reconsider its vote before the legislative session is set to end next week. And the change could be slipped into other proposals moving through the Legislature, although supporters concede that is unlikely.
Georgia already requires minors to wear seat belts and adults to wear them in all vehicles except pickups. Indiana once took a similar position as Georgia, but the state in 2007 passed the adult seat belt law for pickups. New Hampshire has no seat belt requirement for all adults.
The measure's backers had hoped the state's sputtering economy would lend new urgency to adopt the changes, which they depicted as a cost-saving effort.
"This isn't just a policy or philosophy," said state Rep. Kevin Levitas, D-Atlanta. "If you're a fiscal conservative that doesn't want to pass a tax burdens on your constituents, this is something you'd support."
They also sought to soothe concerns among rural drivers by exempting those in pickup trucks involved in "usual and normal" agricultural pursuits from the requirements. But the vague wording of the language was picked apart by critics looking to defeat the bill.
"If I'm going to my house from Atlanta to pick up a tractor part and I get stopped on the way and they don't have a clue who I am, I may be in trouble," said state Rep. Tom McCall, an Elberton farmer and ardent opponent of the measure.
He was among the four lawmakers who voted against the proposal. State Rep. Jay Roberts, the panel's chairman, was forced to cast the deciding vote after it deadlocked.
McCall called the requirements "hypocritical" because adults in the beds of pickups and students in school buses would not be required to wear the seat belts.
"Let's go across the board and put it in every school bus on the road," he said. "If you ever see a bus going down a hill, the kids look like clothes in a dryer."
For some supporters, simply getting the proposal to a vote was a victory. The Senate has passed measures adopting the changes the last three years, but until Tuesday the House had bottled the proposals up without discussion.
A frustrated Thomas, who said he left a cancer-stricken wife at home to push the changes, tried to ratchet up the pressure before the vote by warning House lawmakers that "the blood, the bones, the brains" of crash victims would be on their hands if the proposal isn't adopted.
He and other supporters were left disappointed by the panel's vote. Bob Dallas, the director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, estimated the changes could save as many as 100 lives each year.
"We have an opportunity and a responsibility to take reasonable steps to save lives in this state," said Dallas. "I see no reason whatsoever why we shouldn't do this."