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Legislators in Tallahassee consider letting police pull over unbelted drivers

DAVID ROYSE / AP | March 22 2006

TALLAHASSEE -- For state Rep. Irv Slosberg, the issue of whether people wear seat belts is personal.

Slosberg's daughter Dori was killed -- along with four others -- in a 1996 car crash in which she wasn't wearing a seat belt. And since he was elected to the Legislature in 2000 Slosberg has pushed for tougher seat belt laws.

Wearing a seat belt is required by state law, but police can't pull adult motorists over for not wearing one. They can only write a ticket for the offense if they pull the driver over for something else. Slosberg wants to change that.

``If this law would have been on the books 10 years ago, probably my daughter would be living and probably we'd have thousands and thousands -- tens of thousands -- of people who would be living,'' said Slosberg. ``I can't bring back my daughter and her friends, but I can make things a little different for future generations.''

Slosberg has filed the bill again after several years without success -- although the Legislature did pass a measure last year allowing police to pull over cars when they see a driver they think is under 18 not wearing a seat belt. Gov. Jeb Bush signed that bill into law last June.

Slosberg's latest bill to let police pull over any unbelted driver was approved by its first House committee Tuesday with a 12-3 vote. It still must be heard in several more though before it can get to the floor for a vote by the full House.

The measure is heavily supported by police, who agree with Slosberg that there's overwhelming evidence that seat belts save lives. But over the last five years, Slosberg's been unable to convince many of his fellow lawmakers of the need to let police look for people who aren't buckled up and pull them over.

The opposition springs from a combination of concerns about personal freedom and responsibility and the fear of racial profiling.

House Speaker Allan Bense is among those who aren't enthusiastic about changing the way the state's seat belt law is enforced.

``I just don't like big brother telling me how I'm supposed to conduct my personal affairs,'' said Bense, R-Panama City. He said, however, that he hadn't instructed committee chairman to hold the bill up and he's willing to let it be heard. In the House Transportation Committee, one of three who voted against the bill voiced similar concern -- one that many rural lawmakers have expressed.

Rep. Dwight Stansel said there are about 700 reasons in the law that police can pull a driver over.

``I'll be dadgum if they need another,'' said Stansel, D-Wellborn.

Another opponent, Rep. Yolly Roberson, D-Miami, expressed the concern of some of her black colleagues, who worry about an opportunity for increased racial profiling.

``This is just another reason to stop people,'' Roberson said.

That's always been a major concern, but several black and Hispanic lawmakers over the last few years have agreed to support the legislation, saying it's more dangerous for minorities to be unbuckled in an accident than it is for them to be a victim of racial profiling.

When the Legislature passed Slosberg's bill allowing police to pull over younger drivers last year, it included a requirement that law enforcement report back with statistics about the race of young people who are cited for seat belt violations under the new law.

In the first several months, the racial breakdown of who was ticketed ``basically mirrored the population,'' said Lt. Col. Ken Howes, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, which collects the data.

Howes said that if an officer wants to profile someone and pull them over, there are hundreds of other minor infractions he could use to stop someone.

Slosberg's cause has also been helped by the federal government, which will provide $35 million in federal transportation money to Florida if it passes the bill.

But Slosberg's mission is more about preventing other parents from going through what he did when he got the call about Dori.

``I have to do this,'' he said. ``This is like of mission of mine.''

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