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Laws keep consumers in mind

A bill to require safety devices on new residential pools that keep children from drowning is one of several measures passed with consumers in mind.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Carole de Ibern's mission began the summer day in 1995 when her 5-year-old son, Preston, fell into a backyard pool and was discovered minutes later, not breathing.

Preston suffered brain damage and is unable to walk or talk.

"Someday there are going to be laws passed to protect pools," de Ibern, a Palm Harbor resident, recalls telling herself then, "even if I have to go to Tallahassee myself."

On Friday, de Ibern came home from the capital after getting a hug from the governor and his promise that every new residential pool built in Florida will have safety devices to prevent what happened to Preston from happening to other young children. All Bush needs to do is sign legislation lawmakers passed Friday.

Beginning in October, the 23,000 residential pools built or sold in Florida every year would be required to have one of four safety measures: a 4-foot-high barrier surrounding all sides of the pool, an approved pool cover, an alarm on all entrances to the pool area, or self-closing and self-locking devices on all entrances to the pool area.

Drowning is the leading cause of death in Florida for children ages 1 to 4. Of the 420 children who drowned in the state between 1992 and 1997, 208 drowned in swimming pools at home.

The pool safety law is one of several new measures lawmakers passed this year with consumers in mind.

The Legislature eliminated the annual $10 vehicle emissions tests required of motorists in six Florida counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, where air quality fails federal standards.

That was good news to motorists waiting in line for emissions tests Saturday.

"I'm not convinced that this testing has any significant impact on our environment," 48-year-old Jeffrey Girard said from his Rolls Royce in St. Petersburg on Saturday. Girard said he has never failed an emissions test and, knowing that the tests will end, he felt "a little foolish" having to wait in line.

But Flora Buckalew of Tampa said she is disappointed by the Legislature's move to end the exhaust tests. Her 1997 Plymouth Neon easily passed the tailpipe test.

"I know it's kind of a pain to do this, but our air here isn't very good," said Buckalew, who suffers from mild asthma. "It's a benefit to nature, the environment and to people."

The emissions tests will end July 1, if Bush signs the bill into law, as expected.

In other legislation directly affecting Floridians' lives, lawmakers decided to let motorcycle riders over 21 cruise without helmets. But the legislators made it tougher for teenagers to get their permanent driver's licenses by requiring them to have a learner's permit for a year instead of six months.

Legislators declined to pass other measures, including a law that would make the failure to wear seat belts a "primary" traffic offense, just like speeding. Florida law requires drivers to wear seat belts, but law enforcement cannot make stops solely to enforce that law. Tampa Republican John Grant, who is leaving office because of term limits, failed to get the measure passed for the eighth year in a row.

Lawmakers also refused to adopt another measure to require trigger locks on guns kept in homes where children live.

But in Florida, where backyard swimming pools are a staple of many communities, the new pool safety measures could well have the biggest impact of the consumer bills.

De Ibern and others have spent three years fighting for the pool safety measures in Tallahassee.

"If we lost this again, I was going to get billboards and start at the Georgia line on I-75 and say, "Don't come to Florida because more children drown here than anyplace else in the country,' " said Budd Bell, a children's advocate.

Anyone who fails to use one of the new safety measures could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, with the possibility of going to jail for 60 days or paying a $500 fine. But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Weston Democrat who has sponsored the measure each year, said the point is not to arrest people. It is to have them comply.

"This bill will put an obstacle in the way of a toddler when adult supervision fails," she said.

De Ibern, whose son is now 9 and still cannot walk or talk, said she believes his accident, which happened while she was in another room of the house, happened for a purpose.

"What I want is to stop children from drowning," she said. "Someone who thinks that they can watch their kids every moment of the day is foolish. I thought this could never happen to me, and it did."

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