A Maryland House of Delegates committee, applying the coup de grace that had been anticipated for more than a month, put to rest tonight this session's debate over the mandatory use of car seat belts by killing legislation that had passed the Senate.
On a 14-to-4 vote that does not auger well for the measure's chances next year, the House Judiciary Committee killed a bill that would have required front-seat occupants of cars to use the devices.
Del. Joseph E. Owens, the crusty Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the committee, said tonight the vote reflected a general distrust of government interference in the private decisions of citizens and resentment of the auto industry's support for the measure as a means "of ducking air bags."
"Most of 'em didn't really believe in the idea," Owens said of his colleagues, who five weeks ago buried the House's own version of the bill on a 16-to-4 vote.
Maryland thus follows Virginia in refusing to join four states -- New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois -- that have passed such legislation at the urging of highway safety advocates and an auto industry that joined the crusade under the threat of federal air bag regulations. The U.S. Department of Transportation has served notice on auto companies that it will require air bags unless states representing two-thirds of the nation's population adopt mandatory seat-belt legislation.
Tonight's vote came on the same day that a Baltimore newspaper reported that Gov. Harry Hughes would lobby for the measure's passage to boost his state's chances of landing a General Motors facility that will manufacture its line of small Saturn cars. Hughes is to travel to Detroit next week in an attempt to lure the automaker to build its plant in Maryland.
Owens said tonight he had seen no evidence of an 11th-hour attempt by Hughes to promote the bill, saying, "When I was told about the Saturn project, I thought it had something to do with outer space."
Hughes press secretary Lou Panos also said the administration had made "no great push that I know of," adding that the seat-belt measure "would have been another feather on the scale in favor of Maryland . . . but no one ever said it would be a major factor."
The Senate bill that was killed tonight had passed the upper chamber exactly a month ago with only one dissenting vote. The Judiciary Committee's refusal to embrace an idea with broad support in the Senate -- a not infrequent occurrence here -- prompted one senator to label the House panel as a collection of "mossbacks" and "reactionaries."
Judging by some signs hanging over a bank of phones in the Judiciary Committee's office, the criticism has been taken as a badge of honor. The signs assign one phone to each of the categories of committee members.
Looking ahead to next year, one committee member who tonight voted for the Senate bill agreed that the prospects are dim.
"It would take some strong, persuasive actions on the part of supporters to change the committee members from their present position," said Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince George's). "I understand that. We don't like to force people to do things."