Georgia Senate study committee to push for tougher state seat belt law

Georgia legislators are proposing a law that would fine a driver with an unbuckled child in the back seat who is too old for a car seat $125. Getty Images

All back-seat passengers in Georgia will have to buckle up if a state Senate study committee’s recommendation becomes law.

Adults riding in the back are not currently required to use seat belts under Georgia law. The driver and front-seat passenger are, as are minors riding in the back seat.

“I think this is something that will save many lives of many Georgians going forward,” Chuck Payne, a Dalton Republican and member of the study committee, said at the panel’s meeting Monday at the state Capitol.

The committee also recommends changing state law to allow attorneys defending auto makers and insurance companies in personal injury lawsuits to bring evidence that someone was not wearing a seatbelt when they were injured during a crash.

The Senate Study Committee on Passenger Vehicle Seat Safety Belts made those recommendations Monday after holding several hearings since September. State Sen. Tonya Anderson, a Lithonia Democrat, brought a resolution forming the committee after her bill requiring back seat belts stalled in this year’s legislative session.

Georgia is one of 20 states that requires drivers and front-seat passengers to buckle safety belts, while back-seat travelers can ride belt-free. Drivers and passengers in pickup trucks in Georgia must also wear seat belts per a 2010 law that met resistance from state lawmakers from rural areas. Anyone under age 17 seated anywhere in a vehicle also must wear a belt.

The extra safety and insurance benefits seat belts provide are worth the extra government regulation, according to supporters. State law enforcement officials cited National Safety Council data showing nearly 15,000 deaths could have been avoided in 2017 by seat belt use, according to testimony this fall by state highway safety officials. Insurance industry representatives also argued unrestrained back-seat passengers cost hospitals more to treat than people riding in front when injured and contribute to driving up Georgia’s insurance premiums.

State Sen. Tonya Anderson

Anderson says she plans to push her proposal again in next year’s session. The legislation still needs work to make clear how a back seat belt law will be enforced, Georgia State Police Commissioner Col. Mark McDonough and state Highway Safety Director Allen Poole said during a September hearing.

The bill proposes $15 fines for adult violators and $25 fines for drivers with minor passengers not buckled in.

Two Republican-sponsored bills propose allowing lawyers to tell a court whether or not an injured passenger was buckled in. State law now bars that evidence to determine negligence in civil liability claims, cancel an insurance policy or reduce awards for damages.

Legislation requiring back seat belts might irk civil liberties proponents wary of potential police traffic stops based solely on belt check-ups. But the gains in safety outweigh those concerns, said state Sen. John Albers, a Roswell Republican who chairs the committee.

“This is smart policy that protects everyone,” Albers said after Monday’s hearing.

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.