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Tighten Your Seat-Belt Law

The legislative compromise reached on a proposed mandatory seat-belt law for California remains far from satisfactory. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) has abandoned his insistence on a spiteful provision that would have nullified any California belt rule if the federal government drops a requirement for passive restraints in all new cars by 1990. That action swung Sen. John F. Foran (D-San Francisco), the author of a competing measure, into co-sponsorship of the Brown bill. But the Brown-Foran bill would still require passive restraints for cars sold in California, beginning with the 1990 models. That provision remains objectionable.

It is objectionable because such passive restraints as air bags or automatically locking shoulder belts would add considerably to the costs of new cars while adding little if anything to already available passenger protection. Existing lap and shoulder belts, long mandatory equipment, are of proven value in reducing deaths and injuries in vehicle crashes. The problem has been in getting people to use them, which is why there is now a national push on for mandatory-use laws. If that effort reaches the point where states representing two-thirds of the population require belt use, the federal government will forget about ordering auto makers to install passive restraints.

This certainly is the preferable course. Passive restraints would not eliminate the need for seat belts. Air bags, which are inflated by an explosive charge, provide protection only to front-seat passengers and only in the event of front-end crashes. To gain protection against injury from rear or side impacts would still necessitate using seat belts. Automatic shoulder belts also give only partial protection. For them to be truly effective, passengers would have to use lap belts along with them. Even with passive restraints, then, motorists would still have to take steps on their own to make their rides safer. And if motorists took such action there would, of course, be no case for passive restraints.

Is the Legislature serious about wanting to cut the death and injury rate and the enormous economic costs arising from road accidents? If it is, the course that it should be taking is clear. It should adopt a mandatory seat-belt-use law, with enforcement provisions compatible with federal guidelines. That means providing a minimum $25 fine for violation of the law--not the $20 fine that the Brown-Foran bill, in a deliberate effort to sabotage the federal plan, calls for. And it should forget about demanding costly passive restraints on cars sold in California. With a good seat-belt law, there is no need to consider them. So far, 10 states have adopted such laws. It is time for California to join them.

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