State Politics

Fed funds get tougher seat belt bill approved Senate OKs measure after government’s promise of $35.5M

TALLAHASSEE — For decades, public safety advocates have sought a stricter seat belt law in Florida without success.

But Florida is now poised to join a majority of other states that give police the power to stop motorists solely for failing to buckle up, after a 33-4 Senate vote on Tuesday.

The change has been a crusade for former Rep. Irv Slosberg, of Boca Raton, whose unbuckled daughter died in a traffic crash, as well as the parents of Katie Marchetti, a Tampa Bay teen who died in 2006.

The House has overwhelmingly approved the seat belt bill in recent years. But, until this year, the legislative session has ended each year without the bill receiving a hearing in the Senate.

After the Senate approval Tuesday, the legislation — sponsored by Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston — will head to the House where a similar bill by Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, is expected to pass.

What changed this year? One factor: a tough economy and the promise of $35.5 million in federal highway money — if Florida passes a tougher seat belt law by June 30. Rich said the money was enough to sway several Senate leaders.

But both bill sponsors say transportation funds weren’t the only selling point.

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia allow law enforcement to stop drivers for seat belt use alone. But in Florida, law enforcement officers can’t ticket someone older than 18 for not wearing a seat belt unless the person first commits another traffic offense. The proposal passed Tuesday would remove that requirement. A violation will carry a $30 fine.

Opponents say the bill would increase racial profiling and invade personal rights.

But supporters point to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics that show Florida will save an estimated 124 lives, avoid 1,733 serious injuries, and save $408 million each year.

The bill will be named for Katie Marchetti and Dori Slosberg. Katie, 16, was heading home from Sarasota when a crash outside Sun City Center caused her to be thrown from the vehicle and into the middle of Interstate 75, where she was hit by an oncoming vehicle. Dori, 14, was one of five teens killed 13 years ago in a 1996 crash. Those wearing seat belts survived.

The Marchettis marked the third anniversary of Katie’s death this March with a trip to Tallahassee and a plea to lawmakers to pass the seat belt legislation.

Irv Slosberg and Katie’s mother, Laura Marchetti, hugged following the vote.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Laura Marchetti said. “It’s been a long journey. . . . Now maybe other people won’t have to go through what we’ve gone through.”

Breanne Gilpatrick can be reached at bgilpatrick@miamiherald.com

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