Motorists who climb behind a wheel or slide into the passenger seat of a car or truck in California after Jan. 1 will face a mandatory seat belt law similar to those enacted in 16 other states. In one crucial respect, California's law will break new ground.
The seat belt bill, signed Tuesday by Gov. George Deukmejian, also requires auto makers, beginning in 1989, to equip all new cars sold in the state with air bags or other automatic restraints--making California the first state to involve itself in what until now has been exclusively a federal issue.
In signing the bill, Deukmejian expressed reservations about the state thrusting itself into the air bag controversy. The governor said he is concerned about a provision of the bill that could cause the law to self-destruct.
U.S. Rule Involved
That would happen if the federal government cited the passage of mandatory seat belt laws like California's as cause to rescind its own rule that auto makers equip all cars with air bags by 1989.
Deukmejian said he signed the bill despite his reservations because the seat belt requirement "will lead to the saving of lives."
The law will require drivers and passengers to use the seat belts already in their cars or face fines of $20 for first offenses and up to $50 for subsequent violations.
Motorists can be cited only if stopped for another traffic violation. Although drivers and passengers can be ticketed individually, drivers will be held legally responsible for passengers under 16 years of age who fail to buckle up.
Old Cars Exempted
California's seat belt law exempts older cars that were not fitted with belts as original equipment, as well as motorists with physical disabilities that make seat belt use impractical. Also exempted are some delivery vehicles.
Insurance companies, consumer groups and other strong supporters of the law contend that its air bag provisions will cause auto makers to equip their new cars nationwide with the crash devices.
They are confident because the California law will apply to more than 20 million people--10% of the nation's motoring public--who drive or ride in automobiles and risk being among about 3,000 killed annually on California roadways.
These supporters also believe that the law will help prod the federal government into enforcing national air bag regulations.
"This will send a clear message . . . that the Legislature and the public want this technology to be available," said Brian O'Neill, president of the Washington-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
State officials are prepared to spend up to $5 million studying what, if any, effect the seat belt provisions may have in reducing highway carnage and educating motorists before the law takes effect on New Year's Day.
Private industry, including auto manufacturers--which have been stung by criticism for their long battle against air bags--are expected to spend additional millions on a pro-seat belt campaign that would involve television announcements, billboards and direct mailings.
Law enforcement officials meanwhile have begun to set guidelines for dealing with what are likely to be some thorny enforcement problems.
A spokesman for the California Highway Patrol said, for example, that motorists will be given a "grace period" of 30 to 60 days during which only warnings will be issued. Other police agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, expect to begin issuing citations the day the law takes effect.
Violation of the air bag provisions would bring fines of up to $500 a day for auto manufacturers that fail to equip cars sold in the state with crash devices. That provision will take effect in 1989, the same year that federal law requires auto manufacturers to equip new cars with automatic crash protection devices, such as air bags. (The federal requirement is to be gradually implemented over several years, beginning with 10% of new cars in the 1987 model year.)
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who authored the California law, demanded that an air bag provision be included because he expects the federal government to renege on its own air bag rules.
Escape Clause Readied
This seems probable because U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole has fashioned an escape clause for the auto industry that would scrap the federal air bag requirements if states with two-thirds of the nation's population enact qualifying seat belt laws.
Dole refused to say which of the new laws qualify under her rule, but the 17 states that have acted thus far account for slightly more than half the U.S. population. If Dole counts California in an effort to open the air bag escape hatch, a unique feature of the bill, drafted by several major insurance companies, would result in the California seat belt law being scrapped in its entirety.
Deukmejian said he was "particularly concerned" by that provision, adding that "such a rescission would in no way lessen the need for a continued seat belt law in California."
Seat Belt Usage Low
Peter K. O'Rourke, head of the governor's Office of Traffic Safety, said the state already has begun to survey motorists in five California cities to determine how many use their seat belts. Preliminary figures indicate a statewide seat belt use average of 21% to 22%, with drivers in Los Angeles consistently showing the lowest usage, 15%.
O'Rourke said that usage has been gradually increasing and that he expects it to jump to 50% because of the law's passage alone. With a media blitz expected to begin in late November, officials hope to boost seat belt use to as much as 70% next year.
Should that happen, O'Rourke said, California can expect to see 700 to 1,000 fewer traffic fatalities in 1986. The addition of air bags later should reduce fatalities by an additional 5%, he said, adding that air bags are most effective when used in conjunction with seat belts.
New York Statistics
New York, the first state to enact a mandatory seat belt law, initially saw belt use skyrocket to 70% from the 15% recorded before the law. Use has since fallen to 57% and traffic fatalities have decreased more than 33%, according to the New York state Department of Motor Vehicles.
(Some New Yorkers, in an effort to frustrate the law, have devised a number of innovative techniques, including T-shirts with seat belt material stitched across the front so that police cannot be certain that the driver is wearing a safety belt.)
Experience in New York and elsewhere also has shown that seat belt use and the subsequent savings in lives are directly tied to the level of enforcement. Puerto Rico, for example, which has had a seat belt law on the books since 1974 but where enforcement is negligible, has shown a compliance rate of about 3%.
California Highway Patrol spokesman Kent Milton said he expects CHP officers to strictly enforce the law in the 3 million stops they make annually on state highways. He said he is less confident that the seat belt law will get high attention in some small cities.
"Small jurisdictions are sometimes so wrapped up in other matters that traffic is not a primary concern and enforcement may not be as intensive," Milton said.
Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Cmdr. William Booth said officers will treat the law "like all other traffic laws."
"We're not going to put it way up as a priority where we go out and search for that specifically and uniquely," he said. "But it will become another law that we enforce."