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Florida debates auto-safety legislation // SEAT BELTS

As tragic stories unfolded about children killed by auto air bags, pediatricians and safety groups began telling parents to keep their children buckled up in the back seat.

But Florida law requires only drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts.

Now, lawmakers are preparing to change the law to protect children.

"These kids are being told that the safest place to be is the back seat _ but they're not protected back there under the law," said Marnie George, legislative director for AAA. She has been working with the Legislature to change seat-belt laws.

"We want to make sure we save as many lives as we can," she said.

The state Senate gave tentative approval Thursday to legislation that would require children from 6 to 15 to wear a seat belt in the back seat. Younger children already are required to be in seat belts or child-restraint seats. Final approval is expected Monday, and similar legislation is moving through the state House.

State Sen. James Hargrett, D-Tampa, head of the Senate's Transportation Committee, agreed to push the change after seeing statistics from Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

In 1995, 12 children from 6 to 15 died in traffic accidents in which they were in the back seat of a car or passenger van without a seat belt. In contrast, five children wearing seat belts in the back seat died that year.

Injuries were far more prevalent for unbelted children as well.

Nearly 21 percent of the children not wearing seat belts in the back seat were injured in accidents in 1995 compared with about 10 percent of children in the back seat who wore seat belts.

In addition, Florida has the most fatalities involving air bags, according to the Washington-based Air Bag Safety Campaign, a public-private partnership between the auto and insurance industries and child safety groups.

Executive director Janet Dewey said that six people _ three children and three adults _ have died in Florida after air bags deployed in front seats. That is more than any other state. In all, 62 deaths have been attributed to air bags, which are also credited with saving lives.

Because of the controversy, her group is monitoring states and encouraging changes in seat-belt laws. She said most states do not have laws covering back-seat passengers, because "front-seat laws are easier to pass."

"We run into legislators who don't see this as a public health issue, they see it as a rights issue," said Dewey. "They say, "I'll wear a seat belt, but I don't want to tell someone else to put their's on.'

"

Indeed, Florida historically has been slow to pass laws requiring safety gear. It took several years, for example, for the Legislature to approve a law requiring kids to wear bicycle helmets. Thursday, a House committee approved a plan that would allow people at least 21 years old to ride motorcycles without a helmet. The seat-belt requirement for back-seat passengers in Hargrett's bill applies to children under 16, not adults.

Like the law for front-seat passengers, the bill would hold the driver of a car responsible if a child under 16 in the back seat isn't wearing a seat belt. However, a ticket for a seat-belt violation couldn't be issued to the driver unless the car had been stopped for another reason. In Florida, seat-belt violations are not considered "primary" traffic offenses for which a car can be stopped.

NOW

Driver and front-seat passenger must use safety belts.

PROPOSED

Children under 16 sitting in the back seat would be required to wear safety belts.

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