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Parents crusade to reinstate safety tests

Published Oct. 6, 2005

The murmuring subsided and the shuffle of papers stopped as Patrick O'Brien began telling Florida legislators about the last time he saw his stepdaughter alive.

He recalled having lunch with her on the eve of 1993 and handing her $150 to replace bald tires on her Dodge Shadow.

Less than 12 hours later, on her way home after celebrating the New Year, Vicki Gash O'Brien's car rolled twice after skidding on a curve along a rain-slick boulevard in suburban Fort Lauderdale. She never made it to the tire store.

Despite the O'Briens' pleas, the House committee rejected a measure to require motor vehicle inspections in Florida. Now, a similar proposal is pending in the Senate.

"It is so important," said Lila O'Brien, 45. "It's not an issue that can bring my daughter back, I know that. It's more of an issue to save somebody else's child."

Inspections come and go

Vehicle inspections may be important to the O'Briens, but history shows the issue is not a priority of the Legislature.

Even state Sen. John Grant Jr., the Tampa Republican who sponsored an inspections bill, doubts such controversial legislation will pass this year.

The measure would reinstate a program abolished in 1981 after then-Gov. Bob Graham crusaded against it, saying inspections were known for deficiencies and long lines.

Nearly every year, legislators have offered bills to bring back safety inspections. The only change came in 1991 when lawmakers established car emission tests in Florida's six largest counties _ including Pinellas and Hillsborough.

"It's become an obsession'

You might find them looking at cars in parking lots, along freeways or at stoplights.

Sometimes, the O'Briens even leave notes on car windows, suggesting that strangers check their car's tire tread.

"It's become an obsession," Mrs. O'Brien said. "You go to the grocery store, and you see a young couple with children. You know they're struggling to get by. They just don't know or they don't think about how important their tires are."

Her husband has traveled around the state, talking to reporters about TREAD USA, the organization they've founded.

Mr. O'Brien, a former advertising executive, said he quit his job to focus on improving vehicle safety, but the yearlong effort has left the couple with little money.

"More important to save lives'

Several polls dating back to 1981, when legislators abolished safety checks, show a majority supporting car inspections throughout the state.

Last year, AAA Florida surveyed a million of its members in the six counties that have emissions tests. The study found 66 percent of the members favored safety checks in the emissions program.

"There will be some people, unfortunately, who remember all of the problems with the old system," said Kevin Bakewell, a AAA vice president.

Rep. John Rayson said he hopes to fix those flaws.

Inspired by the O'Briens' saga, the Democrat from Pompano Beach sponsored a bill that would create a new state division to monitor inspections.

Inspectors would check brakes, horns, windshields and wipers, lights and steering mechanisms. Tires also must have tread depths of at least three-thirty-seconds of an inch.

The Transportation Committee rejected the bill in a 10-8 vote, even after O'Brien's testimony.

"Without Mr. O'Brien, I think it would have gone down in flames," said Rep. Edward Healey, D-West Palm Beach, the committee's chairman, who favors inspections. "With him, the vote was close."

Rep. Lesley Miller Jr., D-Tampa, said he opposed vehicle inspections until the O'Briens visited him in his office the day before the committee vote.

"I started thinking about it, and I saw the look on the lady's face who lost a child," said Miller, chairman of the Highway Safety subcommittee. "I started thinking about my family. It's more important to save lives."

"Why our family?'

Highway Patrol troopers said the O'Briens' daughter was legally drunk, speeding and not wearing a seat belt when her Dodge Shadow crashed.

But her parents say Vicki, 26, may have been able to handle the slick curve if her car had decent tires.

About 20 years earlier, Mrs. O'Brien's first husband died in a crash when a worn tire blew on the mail truck he was driving. Last July, the O'Briens' son was injured when a camper with bald tires crashed.

"These were all tire-related. Why are all of these things happening to our family?" Mr. O'Brien said. "You have to wonder whether somebody up there wants us to take up this issue."