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A year after seat belt law passes, a family tries to move on

TAMPA — Every day, Laura Marchetti is out the door by 7:15 a.m.

She works out for an hour and a half at a track near her South Tampa home.

She listens to music — country songs and pop her teenage daughter put on her iPod years ago.

She tries to move forward.

Her daughter Katie would have been 21 on Wednesday. She died after a car accident March 3, 2006. She was not wearing a seat belt.

In June, the state reported that traffic deaths were down 14 percent at the end of 2009 from the previous year. Law enforcement officials credit the Dori Slosberg and Katie Marchetti Primary Seat Belt Law as a significant factor.

Laura, along with her husband, Vin, a prominent development lawyer, spent the four years since Katie's death championing seat belt legislation and conducting education campaigns in schools.

Now, a year after the seat belt law's passage, the Marchettis are trying to live their lives apart from what happened to Katie.

"I had her for 161/2 years," Laura said. "One night she lost her life to a seat belt, and it was just becoming everything to me."

• • •

After the law passed in May 2009 and went into effect a month later, traffic tickets immediately started going up, said Capt. Mark Welch, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Safety and Motor Vehicles in Tallahassee.

The primary seat belt law allows officers to pull vehicles over if someone in the front seat isn't wearing a seat belt. Prior to the law's passage, officers could pull people over and issue seat belt tickets only if another traffic offense had occurred, or if a minor wasn't wearing a seat belt.

At the end of 2009, traffic deaths were at their lowest rate since the department started keeping records in the 1960s. Deaths of teenage drivers and passengers, which continue to make up the largest portion of overall deaths, dropped more than 20 percent.

In the weeks after Katie's death in 2006, Vin and Laura set up the Katie Marchetti Memorial Foundation. One month after the accident, they took about 110 kids up to Tallahassee in an attempt to get the seat belt bill considered.

It didn't work that time. So the Marchettis, especially Laura, spent the next few years involved with education efforts. They held fundraisers. They tried to drum up grass roots support to get the seat-belt legislation passed. Three years later, their efforts paid off.

Promoting the seat belt legislation was a shift from Vin's day job as a development lawyer in Hillsborough County, which has made him enemies. Having developers as clients gives some people an instant negative impression, he said.

"People have a professional side of them and a personal side of them," he said. "I've always tried to treat people with respect."

Former state Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, whose daughter, Dori, is the co-namesake of the seat belt law, said while the legislation "probably" helps with his healing process, he focuses on the lives that will be saved.

"If this would have been the law in '96, I'm fairly confident my daughter would have been alive today," Slosberg said. "Everything is in their honor."

• • •

The Marchettis said they know the seat belt law has helped people. They say it's a blessing.

"But we were raising a pretty amazing daughter," Laura said.

After the law passed, coming out of the constant lobbying activity was hard.

"We immersed ourselves in this, and now, it's in your face, more so," Vin said.

Last week, Laura met with Hillsborough County's assistant principals to talk about the seat belt pledge campaign, where students can sign a pledge to wear their seat belts when they get their parking decals. But she's trying to transition out of her work with the foundation. She wants to do something new, possibly mentoring teenagers.

Two-and-a-half years ago, the Marchettis tore down their house in Valrico and started building one in South Tampa, which they had been planning since before Katie's death. They live there now with their 19-year-old son Andrew, who will start at Florida State University in the fall.

They're learning to be a family of three, they said. It's easier in a house where everything is new.

Vin and Laura said it's hard to even drive through Brandon. That was where Katie had her dance lessons, went to high school. The crash that took her was on Interstate 75 near Sun City Center.

In the new house, there is still a room they call Katie's, but very few of her belongings are there. Laura said she didn't want it to be a shrine, but more a room Katie would have liked, something to represent what she would have become.

It's painted white, with a desk for Laura to do her foundation work. There are pictures of Katie on the wall, but also of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. A fully stocked closet represents Katie's love of fashion.

It's part of Laura's daily effort to remember Katie's whole life, and to be able to live a full life of her own.

Hilary Lehman can be reached at hlehman@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

A year after seat belt law passes, a family tries to move on 07/31/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 31, 2010 10:06pm]
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