ATLANTA — Georgia does not require backseat passengers to wear seat belts but a group of state lawmakers wants to change that.
The Senate Study Committee on Passenger Vehicle Seat Safety Belts met for the first time Tuesday to discuss the existing passenger safety laws and steps to tighten requirements for seat belt usage.
State Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, is leading the initiative to fill in the gap in the current law that exempts adult passengers in the back seat of vehicles from having to wear a seat belt.
“To find this loophole and to bring it in front of the General Assembly is in the interest of public safety and saving lives,” Anderson said.
Georgia is one of the 20 states that do not enforce the use of rear seatbelts. Allen Poole, director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said that, nationally, 47% of motorists killed in car crashes were not wearing seat belts.
“Just because you’re in the back of the vehicle doesn’t mean you’re more safe than in the front of the vehicle,” Poole said.
Insurance rates are high in Georgia because of the state’s high number of car crashes — especially in the metropolitan area, Poole said. Georgia is ranked in the top five states nationally that have the highest number of car accidents.
Without the law change, Poole suggested, the state could be losing as much as $1.5 million in federal funding for not being in compliance with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rules on seat belt use.
But changing the law will not necessarily change people’s habits. Although Georgia passed its hands-free law, banning cellphone use while driving, Poole said that he sees drivers holding their mobile devices frequently.
Mark McDonough, chief executive of the Department of Public Safety, said that if a law is passed, law enforcement would implement education and enforcement to change passenger behavior.
If you are involved in an automobile accident and you are not wearing your seatbelt,” McDonough said, “the chances of you leaving that space, in other words getting hung out the window or completely ejected, goes up exponentially.”
On the roadways, he said, law enforcement still sees many people without seat belts. But the current law says individuals riding in the back seat do not have to wear one.
“I think it’s common sense that the rear seat, the back of that seat and the side of that rear seat is just as damaging,” McDonough said, “and you could be just as susceptible to be thrown out of the side windows or the back windshield if you’re not wearing your seat belt in the rear seat.”
The committee is tasked with compiling a report of their findings and submitting recommendations, including proposed legislation, by Dec. 1.