tampabay.com

Group pushes new seat belt law

A Durant student's death prompts about 100 family members and friends to take their plea for primary enforcement to Tallahassee.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 26, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - They cried Wednesday for Katie Marchetti. Then more than 100 visitors from Hillsborough County walked the halls of the Capitol and urged legislators to pass a stronger seat belt law.

Converting grief into activism, the close-knit group included the parents and grandparents of Katie, a 16-year-old Durant High junior who died last month when she was thrown from a car in a crash on Interstate 75. She was dozing in the front passenger seat of a Toyota Scion and had unbuckled her seat belt while returning home from an engagement party.

Katie's death has mobilized more Floridians to seek a law that would allow police to stop unbuckled motorists. Under current law, known as secondary enforcement, police cannot ticket a driver over age 18 for a seat belt violation unless the driver is stopped for another infraction like a broken taillight.

As Katie's parents, Vin and Laura Marchetti, have learned, somebody has been fighting for their cause for five years in the Legislature. He is Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, whose daughter Dori died in a 1996 crash when she wasn't wearing a seat belt.

"Had we known about his effort, we would have been here five years ago," said Katie's father, Vin Marchetti, a land-use lawyer. "Our attitude is, seat belts save lives."

Slosberg's bill moved through three House committees this spring, and he says he has the votes to pass it if it reaches the full House. But he faces resistance from lawmakers who see a tougher law as a threat to personal freedom or a temptation for police to engage in racial profiling.

The bill (HB 97) is now stalled in the House Transportation Council, headed by Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, and time is running out in the 2006 session.

House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, reiterated his opposition to a primary enforcement law. He said he would not pressure Russell to pass the bill.

"I think it's somewhat of an invasion of our personal privacy," Bense said. "For grown adults, I don't think that we have to have government telling us what to do all the time."

Florida is the only Southeastern state without a primary enforcement law, and legislators, car safety advocates, police and the Transportation Department say it would save lives.

The Legislature changed the law last year to allow primary enforcement for drivers under 18, but advocates say it is ineffective because police cannot tell a driver's age from a distance.

Vin and Laura Marchetti met with Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, whose district is home to most of Wednesday's participants. Lee also was not very encouraging, noting that a version of Slosberg's bill was not even filed in the Senate this year.

"As I told them, my job is to preside, not to dictate," Lee said.

Two busloads of parents and students left the Tampa area at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday for the five-hour drive to Tallahassee. Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee provided a predawn sendoff. Students wore black-and-white T-shirts that showed a buckled seat belt and the words, "A cross-your-heart promise so you won't break mine."

"This shouldn't happen to 16-year-olds, who are on their way, and have all these golden aspirations," said 17-year-old Julie Spiker of Bloomingdale High. "It saddens me that Katie will not get that chance."

The students from Durant, Bloomingdale and Newsome high schools vowed to continue pushing for the tougher law, and they got plenty of encouragement.

"Never underestimate the change that a small group of dedicated and organized people can make," said Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Brandon. "So don't quit."

Steve Bousquet is at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.