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Big Lobbies Clash in Fight on Seat Belts : Hearings Open Today as California Joins Auto Safety Debate

February 19, 1985|LEO C. WOLINSKY | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — If you drive a car, you probably count yourself among the 86% of Americans who believe seat belts save lives. But the odds are you don't use them.

It is a curious disparity verified by national polls. And it is a disparity that is drawing California into the divisive national debate over auto safety as state lawmakers prepare to consider measures making it a crime not to buckle up.

No fewer than four bills requiring seat belt use are before the Legislature, three of which are scheduled for their first hearing today before the Senate Transportation Committee. Surrounding each is an impressive array of studies suggesting that such laws are either the best way to save lives or unenforceable intrusions that will become useless as motorists slip into their unconscious habits.

Other Factors Involved

But as with many issues that find their way to the Capitol, this one has a hidden agenda.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has ruled that air bags or other automatic restraints must be installed in all new cars unless states representing two-thirds of the nation's population pass seat belt laws by 1989.

Auto makers, who have been fighting the introduction of air bags for nearly a decade as too costly and only marginally effective, have gone a long way toward their goal of bypassing the federal regulations. In recent months, they have successfully lobbied for mandatory seat belt laws in the big states of New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Similar measures are pending in 32 other states.

California, representing 10% of the nation's population, promises to provide a pivotal high-stakes test for the auto industry's political prowess.

'Well on Their Way'

"If they get this 10% they are well on their way," said George Tye, a lobbyist representing an influential coalition of insurance companies that, together with consumer groups, favor air bags and oppose the auto makers' efforts. "If they do not get California, they will have real trouble coming up with that two-thirds."

Loren Smith, a lobbyist directing the auto makers' California campaign, conceded that it is "probably the most important state in the union in regard to these seat belt laws . . . and it's a target state."

The four bills would make it illegal for motorists and passengers to ride in a car or truck without seat belts fastened. But that is where the similarity stops.

The auto makers have thrown their weight behind a bill by Sen. John Foran (D-Daly City), chairman of the Transportation Committee, that would empower officers to issue seat belt citations only when stopping motorists for other unrelated violations.

Consumer activists have labeled Foran's measure an "auto industry apologist bill," contending that it was drafted with only one goal in mind: to allow the car companies to escape federal air bag requirements. "It would have the effect of providing California's citizens with precious little protection and elimination of (federal) regulations on passive restraints," said Harry Snyder of Consumer's Union, one of the state's largest consumer organizations.

Foran labels the charges "baloney," insisting that he drafted the bill independently. He also maintains that certain provisions conflict with the federal requirements, making it uncertain whether its passage would help auto makers avoid air bags.

On the other end of the scale are two identical bills by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Sen. Wadie Deddeh (D-Chula Vista). In addition to mandating seat belt use, those bills declare that the California law cannot be used to help auto companies bypass the federal air bag regulations. More threatening to the auto manufacturers, however, is an artfully crafted provision requiring all cars sold in California to be equipped with air bags or other automatic restraints regardless of what happens to the federal requirements.

Help From Insurance Companies

The Brown and Deddeh bills were drafted with the help of major insurance companies that believe air bags would reduce highway fatalities while cutting settlements and boosting profits. Auto makers, who fear passage could force them to manufacture a special restraint-equipped car for California, say the Brown-Deddeh measures are seen as so costly and cumbersome that passage is unlikely. In that event, they say, California motorists could be left without either air bags or a seat belt law.

In between the two extremes is a vaguely worded bill by Sen. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress) that is silent on the air bag issue and on how the measure is to be enforced. His staff says the intent is not to prevent car manufacturers from escaping the air bag requirements. But auto industry sources said they believe that the bill is actually more friendly toward them than the insurance industry bill and that they would support it "with a few amendments."

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