The D.C. City Council has become the first legislature in the Washington area and the 16th in the United States to pass a measure requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts in cars.
The D.C. bill, adopted with only one dissenting vote Tuesday night, would require anyone in the front seat of a car or other vehicle to wear a seat belt. Violators would face possible $15 fines.
However, the measure bars police officers from issuing tickets unless they have stopped a car for some other offense.
According to District officials, Mayor Marion Barry is considered likely to sign the bill soon. The mayor has not raised any objections to it, officials said. If Barry signs it, the measure would become law after a 30-day congressional review period.
The D.C. council action was hailed yesterday by Arlington County Board member Albert C. Eisenberg, chairman of the public safety policy committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
COG has previously urged the District, Maryland and Virginia to mandate use of seat belts.
The D.C. move "sends a very important signal to both Virginia and Maryland," Eisenberg said. "This will give a spur to our efforts to get legislation passed."
During sessions this year, the Maryland and Virginia general assemblies killed proposals aimed at requiring motorists to use seat belts.
In both states, opponents argued that the government should not seek to coerce motorists in what they described as a private matter.
In addition, some state legislators contended that seat belt measures could jeopardize prospects for federal moves to require air bags in cars.
Under a 1984 regulation, the federal government will require automatic crash protection systems in cars unless state governments mandate use of seat belts.
A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman said mandatory seat belt laws have been enacted in 15 states and are pending in several others. Under the federal regulation, the crash protecton requirement may be rescinded if states with two-thirds of the nation's population pass seat belt laws by April 1, 1989.
Under an amendment adopted last month, the D.C. measure would expire if the U.S. Transportation Department seeks to cite it in an attempt to nullify the crash protection rule.
California previously took a similar step in response to lobbying by the auto industry in support of seat belt laws.
Since 1982, the District has required safety seats in cars for children up to 6 years old. Maryland and Virginia also require safety seats for children 5 years old or younger.
In calling for measures to require use of seat belts, COG cited data by the Highway Users Federation, an industry-backed group that favors seat belt laws.
The highway federation has estimated that seat belt requirements could prevent 10 traffic deaths a year in the District, 130 in Maryland and 180 in Virginia, an official said yesterday.
Such measures could also save millions of dollars in medical and other costs and prevent thousands of injuries, the official said.