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

Times Staff Writer

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."

Amid this confusing array of measures, Capitol observers say one thing is clear--the debate is providing a high-spending battleground for two of the state's most potent special interests, auto manufacturers and insurance companies.

Forming a Coalition

The car companies have lined up a large contingent of lobbyists and plan extensive polling in California. They also are trying to forge a coalition of medical experts and other non-industry people to show that their seat belt bill has broad public support.

Additionally, they have established a national lobby group known as Traffic Safety Now, which reportedly plans to spend up to $15 million to pass seat belt laws. A California spokesman said there is no firm figure on how much will be spent in this state. But he emphasized that none of it will be used for contributions to lawmakers.

"We have to be as clean as Ceasar's wife on this," said lobbyist Smith. "If this legislation looks like it would bring forth massive contributions, everyone would be making a mistake."

The insurance companies, which have a long-established presence in the state Capitol, also are committed to spending what it takes to defeat the Foran bill and pass the Brown-Deddeh measures. A spokesman, however, conceded that it will be difficult to match the auto makers dollar for dollar. Instead, they will rely heavily on the influence of consumer organizations that strongly favor both mandatory seat belt laws and air bags.

"I think you're not going to find us alone in this," said Wayne Wilson, lobbyist for the Assn. of California Insurance Companies. "There are a ton of other people, citizen groups involved in this thing . . . who support passive restraints rather than simply a mandatory seat belt law."

Deaths and Injuries

The latest figures compiled by the California Highway Patrol indicate that 4,000 to 5,000 people die and 290,000 others are injured each year on California streets and highways. Officials of the Senate Transportation Committee believe that the fatality rate could be cut by 45% to 55% if all motorists used seat belts. Similar reductions are projected for those who use seat belts in conjunction with air bags or other passive restraints.

The problem with air bags, the car companies contend, is that they only work in direct front and rear collisions. If air bags were installed on all cars, they argue, many motorists would develop a false sense of security and neglect to use their seat belts, leaving them unprotected in some kinds of collisions.

"We feel the optimum is to have both," said Ford Motor Co. lobbyist Richard Dugally. "But it's a matter of economics. Cars we are delivering cost $815 more for the installation of air bags, and that is only for the driver side position."

Will Motorists Buckle Up?

The auto makers' arguments largely hinge on expectations that motorists will buckle up with a mandatory seat belt law. A major study they commissioned found that 86% of Americans believe that seat belts save lives but only 41% use them. Other studies show seat belt use as low as 14%.

The auto industry study also showed that 82% would use the belts at least most of the time if a mandatory seat belt law were enacted. A separate Canadian study reported that seat belt laws in four provinces prompted seat belt use to more than double.

Consumer and insurance groups, however, maintain that auto makers exaggerate the cost of air bags and that their arguments are based on false logic and distorted figures. Seat belt laws are hard to enforce, they say, and motorists eventually will lapse into neglect.

"The problem is people who don't comply often are the more unsafe drivers," said insurance company lobbyist Wilson. "So the reduction in crash fatalities is not as great as expected."

To back up their claims, they point to the same study of Canadian seat belt laws cited by the auto makers. While it showed seat belt use doubling, it also reported that fatalities dropped just 11%, far less than expected.

Insurance and consumer groups also cite a July, 1984, Gallup Poll showing that 65% of Americans oppose mandatory seat belt laws while 60% favor regulations requiring air bags in all new cars as standard equipment.

"Our fear is that if the mandatory seat belt law like Foran's passes, then mandatory seat belts is all we will ever get," said Laura Tudisco, of the 100,000-member California Public Interest Research Group.

Auto lobbyist Smith countered that "the consumer groups want the best of all worlds, mandated seat belts and restraints.

"I'd like to have a car full of marshmallows so I'd never get hurt," he added. "But the legislative art is one of possibilities and I don't believe it is possible. . . . "

Lengthy Fight Seen

If past patterns hold true, the California fight over auto safety promises to take several years.

Just two years ago, the Legislature finally enacted a law requiring small children to be securely belted while riding in cars. As of Jan. 1, motorcycle passengers under age 15 1/2 have been required to wear helmets, but the Legislature has refused in two decades of debate to force helmets on all motorcyclists.

Last year, a bill requiring seat belts died without a single hearing.

"The problem is there is just not much of a compromise zone," said Jerry Reynolds, a polling specialist hired by the auto makers.

Both sides also must persuade Gov. George Deukmejian, who has been decidedly cool toward any kind of mandatory auto restraint legislation. However, in a news conference last week, the governor seemed to soften his stance, conceding that officials within his Administration are urging support for some kind of mandatory seat belt bill.

Battle of Interests

The greatest fear now for all sides is that the safety issues will be lost to the perception that this is little more than a battle between influential special interests.

"If the fight becomes so intense that we throw out the baby with the bath water, then we've got a problem," said Foran.

M. Mehdi Morshed, consultant to the Senate Transportation Committee, said the debate is likely to end in a standoff and California will have lost its opportunity to save thousands of lives.

"It looks like we could have a stalemate now that will prevent that from happening," he said. "(Air bags and seat belts) are not in competition. It's just two powerful forces who have made that their solid stance. And both feel they have to win."

THE SEAT BELT BILLS The Legislature is considering four bills that would require California motorists to wear seat belts. The three Senate bills are scheduled for their first hearing today before the Transportation committee.

Features of Foran Bill Brown-Deddeh Bills The Legislation (SB50) (AB27/SB38) Who must wear belts All passengers All occupants under 16. Driver and front-seat passengers over 16. Exemptions Disabled Disabled Type of violation Infraction Infraction Penalty $25 or Maximum $20. community service Enforcement Citation Not specified issued only when stopped for another violation Passive Restraints Not Required Declares that (air bags or manual seat belts automatic seat are only partial belts) remedy. Requires automatic belts or air bags for all new cars

Features of Carpenter Bill The Legislation (SB12) Who must wear belts All occupants Exemptions Disabled Drivers and delivery truck drivers Type of violation Infraction Penalty Not specified Enforcement Not specified Passive Restraints Not specified (air bags or automatic seat belts)

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