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Senators tell pickup drivers to buckle up

ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers could be on their way to ending the last vestige of the state's resistance to mandating seat belts.

More than a decade after the General Assembly passed a seat belt law for cars, the Senate voted 45-10 Thursday to require drivers of pickup trucks and their front-seat passengers to buckle up.

The seat belt vote came toward the end of one of the busiest days so far this session for the Legislature. Senators also passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would change their terms of office from two years to four, and approved a resolution asking Congress to support a planned commuter rail line linking Atlanta and Athens.

The vote on the seat belt bill, which now heads to the House, marks the first time a seat belt mandate for pickups has cleared either legislative chamber.

The measure's sponsor, Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, cited a rash of grim statistics in attempting to sway senators to pass the bill.

Thomas, who is a family doctor, said more than two-thirds of the 183 Georgians who died in 2004 in crashes involving pickup trucks were not wearing seat belts. In addition, he said unrestrained occupants of pickup trucks are 2.7 times more likely to be hospitalized following a traffic accident than those who are buckled up.

"It will save thousands of lives and thousands of injuries,'' Thomas said. "It will save tax dollars and insurance costs.''

Echoing arguments heard in past sessions about the government mandating seat belt use in cars, opponents said Georgia pickup drivers and passengers should have the right to think for themselves.

Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, who is a farmer, said the requirement would be an inconvenience.

"If you are driving a vehicle and going from field to field ... this would require that every time you get into your vehicle, you have to buckle a seat belt,'' he said.

But freshman Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, one of the bill's co-sponsors, said if Georgia is going to enforce a seat belt law for cars, the state should do the same for pickup trucks.

Otherwise, the Legislature is sending mixed signals to young drivers, he said.

"We need to encourage them to buckle up,'' he said. "We need to send the right message to our young folks.''

Georgia would join 38 other states with four-year state senate terms if the House follows the Senate's lead on that issue, and if voters then approve it at the polls.

The resolution's chief sponsor, Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington, said the two-year terms are becoming increasingly taxing as Senate districts grow in population. He said each senator will represent at least 180,000 constituents following the next census, up from the current 150,000.

"Two-year terms may have been practical some years ago, but I think they have outlived their usefulness,'' Douglas told his colleagues before Thursday's 49-6 vote.

Senators voted 47-0 to ask Congress to come up with federal money for a commuter rail line connecting Atlanta with Athens via Gwinnett and Barrow counties.

The "urging'' resolution, sponsored by Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, carries no real weight. But it sends a message not only to Georgia's congressional delegation but to Gov. Sonny Perdue and legislative budget writers that the project deserves consideration.

The governor's 2008 budget request doesn't have any money for the Atlanta-to-Athens line. However, the Georgia Brain Train Group - an alliance of business, political and academic leaders along the planned route - is seeking $10 million from House and Senate appropriators.