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Bill may tighten seat belts
Murphy, Pearson craft legislation on restraints
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Forsyth County News

Click it or ticket ... or worse. If Senate Bill 23 is passed this session, motorists who choose not to wear a seat belt could be paying a bigger price than just a ticket.

The bill would allow a person's use of a seat belt to be submitted as evidence in a lawsuit for medical or other compensation resulting from a wreck, something current law prevents.

The Senate legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Jack Murphy and Chip Pearson, both members of Forsyth County's legislative delegation. It recently passed that chamber, by a 39-12 vote, and has moved on to the House.

Murphy, a Cumming Republican, said the bill encourages people to take care of their own safety. The result could reduce the burden on the state's trauma care, public health and court system.

While the legislation could take away from individual rights, Murphy said legislators also have to look at the rights of taxpayers.

"I'm more for individual rights, but when your individual rights start costing me money as a taxpayer, then I've got to say wait a minute," he said. "Individual rights are individual rights, but I think it starts hurting other individuals when you act irresponsibly."

Murphy said the majority of motorists wear seat belts. This extra measure could increase that number, as well as help the pace and cost of court cases by encouraging settlements instead of jury trials.

It's the impact on the court system that has some attorneys concerned.

Cumming attorney Robert McFarland opposes the measure, noting the result would mostly benefit insurance companies.

"Everything that goes on at the gold dome is usually a result of an insurance company," he said. "The insurance companies have such a lobbyist [presence] that it's controlling the legislation.

"It's just more government regulation that I'm greatly against."

Attorney Jon Brockman echoed McFarland's sentiments.

"What it would serve to do, if passed, is to allow the jury to determine that a person was responsible for their own injuries, all or in part by virtue of not wearing a seat belt," he said. "It would be a measure advanced by the insurance lobby.

"It gives the insurance lobby and the insurance defense lawyers something more to argue in court."

As an example, Brockman offered a situation where a driver stopped at a traffic signal is struck from behind by a vehicle.

While the stopped motorist isn't responsible for the collision, he said, the fact he or she wasn't wearing a seat belt could be used as evidence that injuries were caused or magnified as a result.

"To say the person that actually caused the wreck is not responsible for the resulting injuries because he wasn't wearing a seat belt ... that just doesn't sound fair to me."

Justin Tomczak, State Farm spokesman, said his company is supportive of the measure's passage.

“As Georgia’s largest automobile insurer, State Farm applauds all efforts to make our roads safer," he said.

Murphy said the bill will draw different reactions.

"It's depending on which side you're on," he said. "I don't think a defense attorney is going to like the bill, but prosecuting attorneys are going to like it pretty well."

A similar seat belt measure introduced in the House failed to pass, drawing just 15 votes of support.

The House and Senate bills were similar, though the Senate version includes motorists driving sports utility vehicles, vans and pickup trucks.

That wording is significant, as current Georgia law doesn't require pickup truck drivers to wear seat belts.

Legislation to change that has been introduced countless times over the years, but has never passed both chambers.

A bill requiring seat belts be worn in pickup trucks has been introduced again this session. It passed the Senate and is in committee in the House.

Murphy, a co-sponsor of the measure, said he hopes both bills pass this session, reducing any confusion for pickup truck drivers.

Seat belt use in lawsuits could work against motorists who do not wear them, he said, but the bill was really "designed to encourage seat belt usage."

"Individuals should be responsible for their own safety, especially when it comes to seat belts ... and that should be admissible in court if you fail," he said.

E-mail Jennifer Sami at