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Panel OKs Farm Van Seat Belt Bill

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bill to require seat belts on farm worker vans and tougher enforcement against violators won swift approval in its first legislative appearance Thursday.

A state Senate committee approved the $1.75-million legislation, which later got the endorsement of Gov. Gray Davis, as a needed protection for “some of the hardest-working people in our society” whose lives “are put in jeopardy around harvest time.”

The action came shortly after a surprise early morning crackdown by the California Highway Patrol on farm labor vehicles and their drivers.

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CHP Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick said the enforcement sweep throughout the state pulled over 118 vehicles, 36 of which were immediately grounded for serious safety violations.

He said officers found 221 violations, including 20 unregistered vehicles, 29 cases of defective lights and 90 license-related offenses, including driving without a license.

In one case, Helmick said, officers in Guadalupe, near Santa Maria, found about 25 farm workers stuffed into a van designed to carry only six or seven people. “We’ll have more of these sweeps,” he said.

The seat belt bill and a companion bill to toughen penalties against operators of unsafe vehicles that carry laborers to and from work were proposed soon after the Aug. 9 crash of a farm labor van and a big rig in Fresno County. Thirteen of the van’s 15 occupants were killed.

The van operator, who had a history of traffic violations, including a drunk driving arrest, was not licensed to drive in California. The van itself had not had a required annual safety inspection since 1997.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 9 to 1 in bipartisan approval of the safety belt bill (AB 1165) by Assemblyman Dean Florez (D-Shafter). It approved the companion measure (AB 555) by Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno) on an 8-1 vote.

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In an unusual demonstration of support, the bills were endorsed by both the agriculture industry and labor. They were sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee for another hearing, the final stop before action by the full Senate.

Farm labor vans and buses that can carry 10 or more people are exempt from current state law requiring vehicles to be equipped with safety belts. So are most school and commercial buses. However, vans that carry church members, youth sports teams, scouts and others must have seat belts.

Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who has represented parts of the San Joaquin Valley since 1978, called the bill a “common-sense” reform. He noted that farm van crashes occur with tragic regularity in harvest seasons and have killed more than 60 people in the past 10 years.

Rosalinda Guillen, representing the United Farm Workers union, demanded that the Legislature enact the bill swiftly, “before the next harvest season brings a fresh crop of needless deaths, injury and suffering to our community.”

The seat belt bill, if signed by Davis, would apply to newly certified farm vans and buses effective Oct. 1. It would apply to currently approved vehicles next May 1.

The bill by Reyes would impose new inspection requirements on the owners of farm labor vehicles and labor contractors and double fines to $1,000 from $500 for inspection violations.

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Additionally, a vehicle owner who knowingly allowed use of an unsafe vehicle would be subject to misdemeanor charges.

In the Transportation Committee, Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) cast the only negative vote against the two bills. He said the measures would have done “nothing to have prevented” the farm workers’ deaths last week.

He called the two bills a political “knee-jerk reaction.”

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