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Columns

Mission to save lives runs into a wall

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published March 17, 2007


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Its supporters are among the most passionate to be found in the Capitol. Their stories are among the saddest.

For the past decade, few issues have had as much sustained exposure. But year after year, the idea goes nowhere.

It's about something simple, too. Seat belts.

A much sought-after change in law would put seat belt violations in the same category as any other traffic violation.

That way, police could stop a motorist who's not buckled up. Supporters say the fear of being ticketed would force more people to wear belts, saving lives.

The current law requires anyone under 18 to buckle up, but police can't ticket an adult unless they see another violation.

AAA Auto Club South, which has long argued for stricter enforcement, says traffic deaths increased in 2005 and seat belt usage declined.

Former Rep. Irv Slosberg of Boca Raton spent his career trying to pass the bill to honor the memory of his daughter Dori, who was killed in a car accident.

Slosberg lost a race for the Senate last fall.

The crusade's face is now Laura Marchetti of Valrico, whose 16-year-old daughter Katie died in a crash on Interstate 75 a year ago. She was riding unbuckled in her car, with someone else behind the wheel.

Laura Marchetti stood on the steps of the Old Capitol holding a huge picture of her daughter. Her voice broke as she spoke in detail about the phone call the night of the horrific accident that took her daughter's life.

"We had so many plans together," Laura Marchetti said. "When we were together, it was euphoric. Euphoric. Nothing else mattered. And within five hours, my daughter was gone."

Marchetti is channeling her grief into a lobbying effort to change the law. But Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, opposes more stringent seat belt enforcement. "If law enforcement officers are stopping otherwise honest citizens who happen to not be wearing their seat belts, who's stopping the drunk drivers?" Baker asked.

He said there are more issues than time to hear them, and as long as he's chairman, he won't take it up. It's not that Baker doesn't believe in seat belts. He does. But as chairman, he alone decides in the Senate whether a transportation bill is heard.

That's the power of a chairman. People resent not being heard, but it's part of the system. Just getting on the agenda is one reason people hire lobbyists.

The seat belt law sponsors this year are Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, and Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City. The newest converts to their cause include freshman legislators such as Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, who stood on the Capitol steps with Marchetti last Wednesday.

Heller said he has been in hospital emergency rooms when people who weren't wearing seat belts are wheeled in from freeway crashes. "We can't lose any more Katies," Heller said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified March 17, 2007, 06:02:01]


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