ATLANTA - Legislation aimed at requiring back-seat passengers to wear safety belts in Georgia hit speed bumps Wednesday as key Senate lawmakers disagreed over penalties and court implications for violators.
Georgia has required front-seat passengers to wear belts in most vehicles since 1988. It remains one of 20 states that lack similar rules for the back seat.
But under Senate Bill 226, every person in a vehicle would need to buckle up – not just those in the front seat. Currently, state law exempts back-seat passengers from needing to wear a safety belt.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Randy Robertson, said the point is to make Georgia’s roads safer and reduce hospital and investigation costs associated with auto crashes.
The measure poses an “opportunity to save some lives in Georgia and I think save a lot of money,” Robertson, R-Cataula, said during a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing Wednesday.
It would not end an exemption for certain vehicles like tractors, mail carriers and school buses.
The Senate committee did not vote on the bill Wednesday.
Fines for violations would increase greatly under an amended version of the bill brought Wednesday from $15 to $75 for drivers and passengers, and from $25 to $125 for drivers who do let children ride without seat belts.
Some lawmakers balked at the steep fine increases, worried they could hit low-income drivers and passengers hardest.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, skeptical that raising fines would produce the desired effect, urged more talks before the bill advances.
“I would like to have a conversation about modifying those numbers a little bit,” said Dugan, R-Carrollton.
Also concerned about the fines was Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, who filed identical legislation on back-seat belt use days before Robertson did during last year’s legislative session.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Anderson questioned the logic of setting fines so much higher, noting her own legislation – Senate Bill 160 – would leave the fine amounts untouched.
“That bill did not have the over-policing and the overbearing of fines,” Anderson said of her measure.
Robertson said he’s open to revising the fine amounts but believes they need to be tough enough to encourage belt use.
Likewise at issue in Robertson’s bill is whether to add a provision allowing civil courts in Georgia to admit evidence that a person was not wearing a seat belt during a crash. State law currently bars such evidence.
Supporters say allowing seat-belt evidence in court would bring more fairness to court proceedings when lawsuits are filed seeking big damage awards from insurance companies. But critics warn shifting the burden of proof to crash victims could dissuade legitimate claims from being filed, thus protecting insurers.
A Senate study committee formed last year recommended changing the law to permit seat-belt evidence in court.
That committee was created through a resolution sponsored by Anderson, who speculated Wednesday that her bill may have been skipped over in favor of Robertson’s because she does not support allowing seat-belt evidence.
Robertson, however, said he wants his bill to pass without any amendments on evidence admissibility.
“I’m hoping by keeping this clean we totally get away from the evidentiary issue,” Robertson said.
That approach is not favored by Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, the public safety committee’s vice chairman.
Harper wondered why more Georgia passengers should be required to wear safety belts despite court evidence protections – and even questioned the virtue of mandated belt use overall.
“I would be OK if we struck the entire seat belt code from Georgia law,” Harper said. “I believe wholeheartedly in personal responsibility.”