Brown Holds Out a Compromise to Pass Seat Belt Bill

Times Staff Writer

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown on Wednesday suggested a compromise that would allow passage of his mandatory seat belt bill even if the Reagan Administration refuses to say whether it would use the measure as a basis for overturning federal air bag requirements.

The key to Brown’s proposal is a “sunrise” amendment that would prevent the mandatory seat belt provision from taking effect until the federal government assured the Speaker that his bill would not be used to rescind the air bag requirement.

Brown Optimistic

After a two-hour hearing of a Senate-Assembly conference committee, the San Francisco Democrat said he is optimistic that a solution can be worked out before the Legislature adjourns Sept. 13. But other conferees said they believe Brown’s ideas will be rejected by the Legislature.

“I don’t think the votes will be there,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John F. Foran (D-San Francisco), a conferee and co-author of the seat belt measure.

The Speaker’s bill, which is supported by the insurance industry, would require motorists to use their seat belts beginning Jan. 1 and demand that auto manufacturers install air bags or other automatic crash devices in all cars sold in California beginning in 1989.


Although it had passed the Assembly and Senate, Brown, in a surprise move, put the brakes to his measure last month, saying he feared that U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole would use the measure to help rescind federal regulations requiring auto makers to install air bags or other passive restraints in cars nationwide.

At issue is a rule that would overturn the national air bag regulations in the event that states with two-thirds of the nation’s population enact qualifying mandatory seat belt laws.

Although Brown’s measure was specifically worded to avoid triggering the rule, Brown said he is convinced that Dole is “waiting with bated breath” to use the California law as a basis for dropping the federal air bag standards.

During Wednesday’s committee meeting, Brown suggested several amendments to his bill that he said would assure that the legislation could not be used to rescind the air bag rules.

Important Provision

Chief among those was the inclusion of the “sunrise provision” that would allow the California seat belt law to take effect only after Dole certifies that it does not comply with the federal standards.

Fourteen states have passed mandatory seat belt laws, but Dole thus far has refused to say whether any of them qualify toward rescinding the federal air bag regulations.

Although Foran expressed pessimism over the proposed compromise, Brown said he simply will appoint a new conference committee if this one fails to approve his concept.

“This is not an exercise, I’m genuinely optimistic,” Brown said. “I’d like to see us go forward. Ultimately, if there is no conference committee (agreement) there is no seat belt law this session.”

Brown scheduled another committee meeting for Monday. Unless an agreement can be reached early in the week, Brown conceded, it is unlikely that the measure can be enacted this year.

California has become a national focus of the seat belt debate largely because it claims 10% of the nation’s population, and various safety and consumer groups believe its actions could set a precedent for the rest of the nation.

On Tuesday, consumer activist Ralph Nader publicly hailed Brown for taking on the Reagan Administration over the air bag issue. On Wednesday, Brown distributed a letter from Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees highway transportation, commending Brown and asserting that Dole will do everything she can to rescind the federal air bag rules.

Lobbyists and others familiar with the California issue, however, were skeptical about Brown’s motives, suggesting that his ultimate goal is to make sure no seat belt measure passes, while placing the blame on federal officials.

Brown reacted angrily to such speculation Wednesday, saying, “I’m really trying to restrain myself from commenting on the heritage and parentage of a person that would come away with that conclusion.”