Senate seat belt study panel hears it’s tough to close back seat ‘loophole’

    The Georgia State Patrol is still catching up with a backlog of requests for crash reports and other records six months after the department's computers were attacked with malicious code. Photo courtesy of Georgia Department of Public Safety.

    Georgia lawmakers studying new seat belt rules heard Wednesday that it could be a challenge to require passengers to buckle up in a vehicle’s back seat and questions remain about how well officers could enforce a new law.

    Some senators raised the enforcement question as they met with state public safety officials. The verdict: Seat belt use is tough to enforce, but the status quo of belt-free back seats needs to end.

    “If they can’t see you, it’s difficult to enforce,” Georgia State Police Commissioner Col. Mark McDonough said Wednesday at the Capitol. “It’s definitely a problem (and) there’s a gap there.”

    Officers know passengers tend to wear seat belts less often at night when spotting violators is harder, McDonough said. The state patrol recently conducted a nighttime crackdown in the small town of Hartwell near the South Carolina line and ticketed 177 drivers for seat belt violations within an hour and 15 minutes, McDonough said.

    Georgia law requires anyone in the driver’s seat, front seat and under the age of 17 to wear seat belts, except for some occupations like farmers and mail carriers. It does not require back seat belt use, which some lawmakers say makes no sense.

    “To have the loophole that the back seat is not included…kind of sounds a little off beat and off course,” said state Sen. Tonya Anderson, a Lithonia Democrat. Anderson sponsored the resolution that created the committee and sponsored legislation earlier this year to require everyone in a vehicle to buckle up.

    Anderson’s bill and another by state Sen. Randy Robertson, a Republican from Cataula, are still pending ahead of next year’s legislative session. Two other bills that aim to make a person’s decision not to wear a seat belt admissible as evidence in civil court cases are also alive for next year.

    Nearly half of all people killed in vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts at the time, the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Director Allen Poole said Wednesday, citing national statistics. The lack of a state law on the books in Georgia that requires back seat buckling up runs counter to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards. That omission might cost Georgia federal money that could be used for road safety improvements, Poole said.

    “Some way, we’ve got to look at that and tighten that loophole,” Poole said.

    State officials should craft large-scale public education messaging on back seat belt use in the style of Georgia’s “Click It or Ticket” campaign to support enforcement efforts if a new seat belt bill passes, Poole said. Changing passenger behavior through outreach plays a key role in increasing seat belt use when fear of getting pulled over doesn’t work.

    “It’s a continual thing as time moves on with different generations,” McDonough said. “With each new generation we have to educate and we have to enforce and we have to try and change that behavior there.”

    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.


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