SACRAMENTO — A stalemate over efforts to enact a California seat belt law was broken Tuesday as a Senate committee approved an auto industry-backed measure that would impose a fine on motorists who neglect to buckle up.
The Senate Transportation Committee, in a vote heavily criticized by consumer groups, also killed two rival seat belt measures, one of which would have required auto makers to install air bags or other passive restraints in all new cars sold in California.
Air Bag Issue
The committee, on a 6-2 vote, approved the bill by its chairman, Sen. John Foran (D-San Francisco), that was the subject of intense lobbying by auto makers who hope it will help them avoid air bag requirements.
The air bag issue is at the center of the controversy because of a federal order requiring all new cars to have air bags or automatic seat belts by 1990 unless states with two-thirds of the nation's population pass mandatory seat belt laws. Five states, including New York, already have acted.
As part of their lobbying effort, the auto makers flew three members of the Transportation Committee, including Foran, to Detroit last October where they were taken on a tour of auto assembly plants.
Foran insisted Tuesday that he was acting independently and without regard to whether his measure would help the auto industry. He also said he hopes auto makers will go ahead with research on air bags and other safety devices regardless of the federal regulations.
"If we do this now (enact a seat belt law) we will be able to use devices that have been in cars since 1964," Foran said, "and you will save 1,000 lives in California each year."
Only minimal debate was allowed since the bills had undergone a five-hour hearing two weeks ago that left committee members badly divided over which if any of the bills to support. When it came time for a vote on Tuesday, it was clear that Foran had lined up the necessary support.
"I can read and I can count and I read your bill has the votes," Sen. Wadie P. Deddeh (D-Chula Vista) told Foran in conceding that his measure, identical to a bill by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), was all but dead in the Senate.
Deddeh's bill, as is Brown's, is supported by consumer groups and a large segment of the insurance industry because it requires air bags or other passive restraints in all new cars in addition to seat belts. It was defeated on a 2-4 vote. Another seat belt measure by Sen. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress) garnered only one vote.
After Tuesday's vote, lobbyists on both sides of the issue predicted that the Speaker's bill, requiring air bags as well as seat belts, would be approved in the Assembly, setting the stage for a showdown with the Foran measure in a two-house conference committee.
"If a compromise has to be made (the Assembly) is where it will be made," said Loren Smith, who is heading the auto industry's Sacramento lobbying effort.
Clearer Choice Seen
Meanwhile, consumer groups criticized the Foran bill as unenforceable and as no victory for the motoring public.
The California Public Interest Research Group said the bill "reflects a dangerous disregard for the public's health and safety on the part of the auto industry."
But another public interest lobby, Consumer's Union, said Tuesday's vote leaves lawmakers with a clearer choice between Foran's bill in the Senate or the Brown bill, which it supports, in the Assembly. "I think the issue is much more straightforward now," spokeswoman Judith Bell said.
The auto makers' prowess seemed to have influenced at least one vote. Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) said that although he had serious concerns about the Foran bill, he decided to back it in hopes that General Motors would agree to keep its Van Nuys assembly plant open.
"I would feel downright terrible if we were to do this for my good friends at General Motors and if GM were to make the decision afterward . . . to close it down," Robbins said.
Lee Ridgeway, a General Motors lobbyist, said the auto makers had agreed to no such deal and that he could not say for sure whether the Van Nuys plant would remain open.
Foran's measure, which appears to have the backing of Gov. George Deukmejian, would apply only to cars made after seat belts became standard equipment. It proposes fines of $25 for those who fail to buckle up but allows police to issue citations only when motorists are pulled over for some other violation.