Three measures requiring motorists to buckle their seat belts got caught in a verbal shoot-out between two of the state's most influential interests Tuesday, prompting a Senate committee to delay consideration of any of the proposals.
A large contingent of lobbyists representing opposing forces in the auto and insurance industries packed a Capitol hearing room as a parade of witnesses presented reams of studies and statistics, each claiming to prove that one bill or another would be the best way to prevent highway deaths.
After three hours of testimony, the committee chairman, Sen. John F. Foran (D-San Francisco), said he would not call for a vote until the committee's next meeting.
Sees Threat to Any Bill
"I'm afraid we are not going to have a bill at all if the two sides keep conflicting like this," an exasperated Foran said at one point. "Maybe someone wants it that way."
At the center of the dispute is an order signed last July by Secretary Elizabeth Dole of the U.S. Department of Transportation requiring air bags or other passive restraints in all new cars unless states representing two-thirds of the nation's population enact mandatory seat-belt laws.
That regulation touched off a nationwide lobbying effort by auto makers who have waged a 10-year battle against air bags, which they consider too expensive and only marginally effective.
Foran's bill, is backed by the auto industry, which believes that it will help them bypass the federal regulations. It would empower law officers to issue seat belt citations only when stopping motorists for other unrelated violations.
Insurance companies and consumer groups, however, have lined up behind identical bills by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Sen. Wadie P. Deddeh (D-Chula Vista), which not only require the use of seat belts but would mandate air bags or other passive restraints for all new cars in California regardless of what happens to the federal regulations.
Third Bill Offered
A third bill by Sen. Paul B. Carpenter (D-Cypress) appears to fall somewhere between the other two.
In Tuesday's debate, each side sought to discredit the other with its own expert testimony. But with all three Senate bills authored by committee members and little agreement among witnesses, the testimony only seemed to exacerbate the confusion.
"I trust that this year there might be a motion and next year they might get a bill," commented Carpenter, who introduced a measure last year but could not get enough support to bring it to a vote.
Elaine Petrocelli, representing the American Assn. of Automotive Medicine, told the committee that air bags are unproven and that seat belts are the only sure way to save lives.
"People are not dummies," she said, referring to crash tests showing the effectiveness of air bags. "Their ability to prevent human injuries is still very limited."
But Jack Martins, a consulting engineer testifying on behalf of insurance companies, said seat belts are not required to pass any safety tests, unlike air bags and other passive restraints.
"We know (seat belts) are better than nothing, but there is no way to know how much better," he said. Passing an auto makers' bill like Foran's, he added, is like "giving over the guard duty of the chicken coop to the wolves."
Loren Smith, a lobbyist heading the auto makers' campaign, conceded that there would be no bills or debate this year were it not for the car manufacturers' fear of federal air-bag regulations.