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Privacy and profiling concerns confront tougher seat belt bill

Published Aug. 24, 2005

For two decades, supporters of a stricter seat belt law in Florida have argued their case in the state Legislature without success.

The annual fight began anew Tuesday, with backers arguing that seat belts save lives and opponents warning of Big Brother-style government intrusion or racial profiling. Chances of passage again are uncertain because the Legislature's leaders oppose it.

Supporters want to give police the power to write tickets to motorists for not buckling up. Under a 1986 law, police must stop a driver for another reason, such as a bad taillight or expired tag.

The House Transportation Committee on Tuesday voted 10-4 for a bill that would give police that authority. Fines would range from $68.50 to $74.50.

AAA Auto Club South cited a December report in the Orlando Sentinel showing that five of the 10 counties nationwide with the highest rates of traffic deaths involving unbuckled passengers are in Florida.

Hillsborough leads the United States with 86 deaths per year per 1-million residents, the report said, with Palm Beach, Orange, Broward and Miami-Dade counties also in the top 10.

Senate President Tom Lee and House Speaker Allan Bense oppose a stricter seat belt law, but neither has said he would use his clout to block it from a vote.

"I think it's an intrusion of privacy," Bense said. "It's too early to say whether it's going to get to the floor or not."

The issue is personal to the bill sponsor, Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton. Nine years ago, Slosberg's 14-year-old daughter, Dori, was killed while riding unbuckled in the back seat of a car. He said two front seat passengers who wore seat belts survived.

"I understand that the difference between life and death is a seat belt," Slosberg said.

At a news conference Tuesday, Slosberg showed a snapshot of his daughter.

"She snuck out of a movie and took a ride with a 19-year-old guy," Slosberg said.

His allies include police chiefs, car dealers, doctors and highway safety groups. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, opposed the bill in 2004 but said he changed his mind because of crash statistics.

In Tuesday's debate, Rep. Susan Bucher, D-Royal Palm Beach, joined three Republicans in voting no. Bucher said she feared police would use the law to harass minorities. Racial profiling "really does occur," Bucher said.

The Senate sponsor, Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, is an African-American who said racial profiling is not as important as saving lives. Hill said his son, a student at Louisiana State University, buckles up at college because Louisiana has a stricter law. When he's home, Hill said, he's lax about it.

The bill overwhelmingly passed the House last year, but then-Senate President Jim King refused to bring it to a vote. That prompted Slosberg to say of Senate opponents: "The blood is on their hands."

Gov. Jeb Bush, who favors a stricter seat belt law, said he talked to Slosberg about not insulting powerful lawmakers. "Passion is great," Bush said, "but passion that cascades into insults is bad."

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report.