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Brown Yields--Seat Belt Bill Likely to Pass

Times Staff Writer

Passage of a mandatory seat belt bill for California is likely as a result of a breakthrough agreement reached Tuesday between authors of two rival measures that would require motorists to buckle up.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 7 to 1 to approve a bill by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) after he agreed to drop a controversial provision that had drawn strong opposition from Committee Chairman John F. Foran (D-San Francisco), author of the competing measure.

The Speaker’s bill, which has passed in the Assembly, would require drivers and passengers to use seat belts or face fines. It is similar in that respect to measures enacted by 10 other states. Unlike those states, however, California would also require, under Brown’s bill, that auto manufacturers install air bags or other automatic crash protections in cars sold in the state after Sept. 1, 1989.

On Tuesday, Foran, whose seat belt bill was rejected by the full Senate, agreed to become a co-author of the Speaker’s bill, thereby removing a major roadblock to the legislation.

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At the same time and of equal importance, the auto industry and several large insurance companies, which had been waging a divisive lobbying war behind the rival bills, called a truce, pledging not to interfere with the legislation’s progress.

Brown, speaking to reporters after the vote, said chances for approval of a seat belt bill this session are excellent.

Nationally, auto manufacturers are facing a federal requirement to install air bags or other automatic restraints in new passenger cars. The Reagan Administration recently agreed to scrap the regulations, however, if states with two-thirds of the nation’s population enact qualifying seat belt laws.

The provision that Brown agreed to strike from his bill was written to ensure that California would not be counted toward that two-thirds. It would have automatically rescinded the California seat belt law if the federal air bag rules are dropped.

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Decade-Long Battle

The so-called repealer provision was drafted by several large insurance companies that have conducted an unsuccessful, decade-long battle to force auto makers into accepting air bags, which the car companies have opposed as being too costly and only marginally effective.

Foran, whose bill originally was viewed as helping auto makers, said the repealer provision would have led to “an absurd situation” in which, suddenly, a law known to save lives would be scrapped in midstream. He had vowed to make sure that the Speaker’s bill died in his committee if that provision remained.

Brown removed that obstacle Tuesday, saying, “I’m a very practical person.” Even without it, there is doubt that the Speaker’s bill would enable California to be counted towards the two-thirds needed to scrap the federal air bag rules.

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Under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s order, “qualifying” seat belt bills must require a minimum $25 fine and provide for an educational program on auto safety.

Calls for Fines

The Speaker’s bill has no educational component and provides for fines of up to $20 on first a conviction and $50 for subsequent violations. Motorists could be cited only in conjunction with another violation. Brown also agreed to amend the bill to allow first-time violators to attend traffic safety classes in lieu of paying fines.

Brown predicted that in the event the federal government attempts to count California, “someone will immediately file suit.” He also predicted that, if his bill is passed and signed into law, auto manufacturers are likely to begin making automatic restraint systems available in cars nationwide, because California would require them to do so in any event.

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Gov. George Deukmejian indicated earlier that he would support some kind of a mandatory seat belt use measure, but he has been reluctant to endorse any bill that includes requirements for air bags or other automatic crash systems. In a news conference Tuesday, Deukmejian said he would reserve judgment on the Speaker’s bill.

The governor’ Office of Traffic Safety, which was scheduled to testify against the measure on Tuesday, withdrew at the last moment, however, after hearing that Brown intended to drop the so-called repealer provision from his bill.

In Uneasy Position

The sudden turn of events left both auto makers and the insurance lobbies in an uneasy position.

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The insurance firms had argued strongly for the repealer provision in hopes of starting a precedent that would put additional pressure on the Reagan Administration to uphold the federal air bag rules.

Auto makers, meanwhile, remain opposed to laws that would force them to install air bags, but they fear that opposing a California seat belt measure could make them appear to be against traffic safety.

Loren Smith, chief lobbyist for the car manufacturers, said auto executives in Detroit agreed to drop their opposition to the Brown bill “in respect to the need to save lives in California and in respect to Mr. Brown’s willingness to compromise.”

California auto dealers, however, remain opposed because they fear the effect of producing a separately equipped car for California.

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