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It took just two days after the 2014 Legislature, when lawmakers once again rejected a tougher seat-belt bill, for Lee Perry to get the call. The part-time legislator and full-time Utah Highway Patrol supervisor was summoned to the site of a fatal crash.

"The driver clearly would have survived if he had buckled up. The car was intact, but he had been ejected," Perry says about the Sardine Canyon crash in northern Utah.

"It was the third year in a row that I was called to an accident like that just after the Legislature," making his temper simmer, thinking that lawmakers could have helped prevent the deaths.

But the tipping point, Perry said, came in June at a Tremonton accident in which the 16-year-old son of family friends lay dead on the freeway, also ejected from a rollover after not wearing a seat belt. "I had to break the news to his mother that Tyler wasn't coming home."

So Perry, with urging from victims' families, is planning a full-court press this year to make failure to use a seat belt a primary offense, meaning officers could stop and cite people for the lapse. Currently, Utah has a "secondary" law for those 18 and older. A $45 ticket can be issued only when an officer stops a vehicle for another reason.

A parade of victims' relatives has volunteered to help testify and lobby. And Perry wants to call his HB79 the "Tyler and Mandi" bill in memory of two teenage victims, including his family friend, to put human faces on the issue.

"We could save 35 to 37 lives a year," he says, based on estimates from the Utah Highway Safety Office.

Opposition • Primary seat-belt bills have died time and again for years in the conservative Utah Legislature. Perry, a Republican from Perry, says they fall victim to one main argument.

"The first thing I get is pushback saying, 'You want to take away people's rights,' " Perry says. "That's absolutely not the case at all. I want to protect people."

He argues that people exercising their so-called right not to wear a seat belt often kill and hurt others.

Perry explains that many serious accidents result from drivers losing control while swerving because forces pull them out of their seat. A seat belt would help prevent that. "I see it all the time," he said.

"If you are a single driver and kill yourself, that's your choice and the price you pay," Perry says. "But people don't realize how many others can be hurt by that choice."

That includes the loved ones left behind.


Tyler & Mandi • At 16 years old, Tyler Stuart and Mandi Brown of Brigham City were each the youngest in their families. Tyler was fun-loving, adventurous and friendly to a fault, says his mom. Mandi was beautiful and a lover of animals ­— the only girl in a family with three boys, says her mom.

The teens were passengers in a truck driven by an 18-year-old. None of the three was wearing a seat belt last June when the driver lost control where Interstates 84 and 15 merge in Tremonton. The truck rolled several times.

"Tyler was ejected. He ended up in the middle of the freeway" and was killed, Perry says. Mandi was ejected onto the edge of the road. She lived a few days in a coma before dying. The driver, who was not ejected, was paralyzed.

"If you look at their truck, there's no reason that two children should have died that day. It was intact," Perry says. "If they had worn seat belts, they would have walked away from that crash."

Perry is a friend of Tyler's family. The teen's mother, Kelli Stuart, is an emergency-room nurse at the hospital in Brigham City. Because she often sees victims who did not wear seat belts, she says she taught her children to buckle up.

She remembers going into the hospital hallway and seeing Perry standing in his uniform. "Somehow, I just knew what had happened. Lee said, 'I'm sorry. Tyler is dead.' He threw his arms around me, and we cried. It was the worst day of my life."

She says, "Tyler thought he was indestructible, but he wasn't." She added in a letter she posted online for the Zero Fatalities campaign, "Our heart has been broken into pieces. ... Even every normal day is full of sadness and painful reminders that he is gone."

Mandi's mom, Melissa Brown, said when she saw her daughter in the hospital, the swelling was so bad, she didn't recognize her. The family removed her from life support after a few days and took some solace that her organs were donated.

Melissa, who is from California, said she found out only later that Utah does not have a primary seat-belt law. California does and has steep fines — so she said her family made it a practice always to wear seat belts.

She believes that Mandi and Tyler may have given into some teenage peer pressure that day to ride without buckling up.

"If there were a mandatory law, I think they would have had their belts on because the Highway Patrol could have pulled them over and given them all tickets," she said. So she contacted Perry to urge him to push the bill and offered help.

Melissa Brown has been organizing other victims' families to join in the effort. "She is the force behind it," Perry says, noting she and Kelli Stuart have sent cards to all lawmakers, seeking support.

Statistics • Perry has other arguments ready for his bill.

The 33 states with primary laws saw their usage rates jump "at least 10 to 15 percent," he says. With Utah's rate at around 80 percent, he adds, "We could be in the 90 to 95 percent range. You see the number of lives we could save?"

Seat belts are even more important now that Utah recently increased speed limits on freeways, Perry says, boosting the forces that can toss and twist unrestrained bodies during crashes.

The lawmaker points to a variety of statistics from the Utah Highway Safety Office:

• People who don't wear seat belts were 34 times more likely to die in a Utah crash in 2013. Seat belts saved an estimated 72 lives that year, and 37 more likely could have been saved if they had been properly restrained.

• Half the people killed in Utah car crashes — 55 percent in 2013 — were not properly restrained. But 98 percent of people who survived crashes that year were properly buckled up.

• Fatal crashes cost Utahns an estimated $1.6 billion a year in such things as highway delays, hospital costs, emergency services and loss of property.

Perry hopes this is the year a tougher seat-belt law finally passes.

Melissa Brown is doing everything she can to see that it is. "I don't want any other family to go through what we did. This can help prevent that."

Twitter: LeeHDavidson