SACRAMENTO — Senate and Assembly negotiators Tuesday night agreed on compromise seat belt legislation that would require motorists to buckle up beginning Jan. 1 and auto makers to install air bags or other automatic crash protections in California cars beginning in 1989.
However, a key element of the compromise would rescind the California law if the federal government fails to enforce nationwide regulations requiring air bags or other restraints in all new cars by the decade's end.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), the bill's author, and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) shook hands after agreement was reached and predicted that the measure would be approved before the Legislature adjourns on Friday.
Only Monday, Brown had declared that chances "are not great" for enactment of a seat belt law this year.
His gloomy assessment, which came after Senate and Assembly conferees failed to resolve a dispute over the bill, seemed to create renewed impetus for Tuesday's agreement.
The compromise was fashioned in two hastily called negotiating sessions, the last of which was attended by the Democratic leaders of both houses. Agreement came just hours before a deadline that would have prevented further action this year.
"We've got a seat belt bill," a jubilant Brown declared.
Auto makers, who once strongly opposed any bill that would require air bags or other automatic crash devices, said they would not stand in the way of the compromise.
"The charge we had was to get the best seat belt bill attainable," an auto industry lobbyist said in an interview. "If this is the best bill we can get, then we won't oppose it because we want to start saving lives on Jan. 1. After that, if we have problems, we'll try to work them out with the Legislature."
Major insurance companies lobbied heavily for the measure and held out all along for provisions that would pressure the federal government to enforce its nationwide air bag rules.
It was a seesaw battle from the beginning.
Both houses already had approved the bill and Republican Gov. George Deukmejian had agreed to sign it when Brown suddenly halted its progress, saying he feared that U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole would use the bill's passage as an excuse to abandon the federal air bag regulations.
Center of Issue
At issue was a Department of Transportation ruling that would set aside those regulations if states with two-thirds of the nation's population enact qualifying seat belt bills.
Thus far, 14 states have acted. California, however, would be the first to require air bags or other passive restraints as well.
The provision added to the bill under the compromise was an effort to keep Dole from counting California as part of that two-thirds majority. If she does, the amendment would automatically repeal the California law.
A virtually identical provision had originally been included in Brown's bill but was taken out in the face of strong objections from Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Foran (D-San Francisco).
Foran, who had earlier called the provision "ridiculous," said he no longer objects to its inclusion because Brown has promised to immediately sponsor another seat belt bill if the California law ultimately is rescinded.
No Risk Seen
"Sen. Foran is not taking much of a risk by virtue of this compromise," Brown said. "I believe mandatory seat belts will develop their own constituency by the percentage of lives they will save commencing Jan. 1. . . . Once it becomes law, it stays law by one means or another."
Staring Jan. 1, failure to use seat belts would bring fines of up to $20 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. But citations would be issued only when a motorist was stopped for another violation.
Manufacturers who fail to install automatic crash protections in new cars sold in California after Sept. 1, 1989, would face fines of up to $500 for each non-complying vehicle sold in the state.