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Seat belt loophole costs state millions

Georgia now can place a real-world price tag on keeping its country bumpkins happy: $20.6 million.

That's the amount in federal grants that state legislators knowingly forfeited earlier this year when they declined to do away with what's known in some quarters as the seat belt loophole. Like most states, Georgia mandates that seat belts be worn by all adult front-seat occupants of a moving vehicle. Except, that is, if the vehicle in question is a pickup truck.

When Congress passed a mammoth, pork-laden $286 billion transportation spending bill in July, it included more than $500 million in "incentive grants" for states with acceptably strict seat belt enforcement laws. By failing to force pickup drivers and passengers to buckle up, Georgia lost out on a potential $20.6 million windfall, according to Bob Dallas, director of the governor's office of highway safety.

All but a smidgen of the current $13.5 million budget for Dallas' office comes from the feds, paying for such statewide programs as the "Click It or Ticket" public awareness campaign.

But the additional $20.6 million would have come with fewer federal strings attached than usual. The money could have been spent on new signs, traffic signals, road repaving — virtually any use that could reasonably be linked to promoting highway safety.

"My understanding is that the issue [of not getting the federal grant] is with the exclusion of pickup trucks," Dallas says.

During his nearly three decades in office, former House speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, proudly kept the pickup exclusion in place as political payola to voters in rural Georgia, many of whom were pickup-driving farmers who presumably didn't want to bother with seat belts.

"Murphy's not around anymore, but his thinking has trickled down and we have legislators who are afraid to remove the seat belt exclusion," says Rep. Calvin Hill, R-Woodstock, who proposed a bill to do away with the provision during this past General Assembly.

"South Georgia is really a different place than it was 20 years ago," says Hill, noting that pickup trucks have gone from being a farm vehicle to a primary form of transportation for many suburban drivers, including teenagers.

In fact, he claims, pickups have become so common that accidents involving passengers who aren't wearing seat belts have cost the state an estimated $300 million in health care costs and other avoidable expenses.

Although his bill languished in the Motor Vehicles Committee without coming to a vote this session, Hill will get another chance to see it passed in 2006.

But he may have to do it without support from Gov. Sonny Perdue. Although Hill says the governor hasn't spoken against the bill, neither has Perdue lifted a finger to promote it, even though state officials have known for at least 18 months that Georgia would lose out on the $20.6 million federal grant if it didn't change its law.

Dallas says he can't speak for his boss's intentions, but believes the governor is "trying to strike a balance between public safety concerns and government intrusion into people's lives."

If legislators are able to overcome their political fear of rural voters and change the seat belt law within the next four years, however, it's Dallas' understanding that the federal grant will still be waiting.

Earlier this month, Perdue ignored a plea from Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, to add Hill's bill to the agenda of a recent special legislative session, which was called to roll back the state gas tax in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Oliver says that while the state is giving up an estimated $75 million in gas tax revenue, it could have recouped a portion of that money by getting rid of the pickup exclusion.

"It's a no-brainer to take that money," she says.



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