Children who suffer injuries when a drunk driver slams into their vehicle will be scrutinized by attorneys for not wearing a seat belt, lawmakers argued on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, under proposed legislation allowing juries to hear evidence of safety restraint usage.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, initially failed to survive a roll call vote but advanced when taken up again in the afternoon. Sponsored by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Senate Bill 296 removes a "gag order," Wilborn said, allowing the use of a seat belt to be argued in court to mitigate damages.
Several senators challenged Wilborn to explain what would happen to victims in a variety of imagined scenarios, such as crashes involving drunk drivers, people parked unbuckled on the side of the road, and children riding a school bus, where seat belts aren't required.
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, Kan., said it was wrong to ask jurors to speculate about the possible effect of wearing a seat belt rather than "look at the actual injuries that occur." She also said the bill, which is supported by General Motors, State Farm Insurance and defense attorneys, takes its language from a model provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Addressing hypothetical damages caused by an impaired driver, Wilborn said the driver "may have been the sole cause of the wreck but wasn't the sole cause of the resulting damage."
In another scenario, Hiawatha Republican Sen. Dennis Pyle questioned why the burden should shift from the distracted driver who rear-ends somebody to the victim who gets thrown from the car. He then produced an analogy involving gunshot victims, saying the bill had the comparative effect of blaming someone who was shot for not wearing a bullet-proof vest.
"And because of that, they're responsible that the bullet went on into the chest cavity and killed them," Pyle said.
During the morning session, Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, called for a roll call vote, which ended in a 19-19 tie. A 21-17 vote in the afternoon put the bill on the list for final action.