Seat-Belt Awareness: Making Loss a Gain

Times Staff Writer

Rob Lessin lost his only son when 16-year-old Brian died in a car crash that police say he could have survived if he'd been wearing his seat belt.

Lessin and about 250 of Brian's friends and relatives tried to turn that loss into a gain for other drivers Sunday. Joined by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who proclaimed Aug. 2 as Brian Christopher Lessin Day, the group gathered at Taft High School in Woodland Hills to promote seat-belt awareness.

"If Brian had been wearing his seat belt, then when his car hit that brick wall and flipped over, his head wouldn't have gone through the sun roof and his neck wouldn't have broken because he would have been restrained," Lessin said, his eyes filling with tears. "I feel like we can make a contribution if at least one other kid's life can be saved."

Teen-agers such as Brian are not the only group who neglect to buckle up, Bradley noted in his speech. Although 27 states have seat-belt laws, only about 40% of American drivers used their seat belts in 1986, according to a National Traffic Highway Safety Administration survey.

"Some people don't wear them because they're inconvenient," Bradley said. "Well, death is a lot more inconvenient."

California's compliance rate jumped from 18% to 43% in the first 11 months since the state law took effect in January, 1986, said Officer Bernie Garcia of the California Highway Patrol. But field officers in Los Angeles County still wrote 14,064 tickets to people for not using their belts in the month of June. Each ticket costs first offenders $20; repeat offenders pay $50 per violation.

Two of Brian's friends who helped organize Sunday's event--Tammy Shapiro, 17, of Woodland Hills, and Howard Chapnick, 16, of Tarzana--said they used to ignore the straps because "no one else wore them."

Almost immediately after Brian's death June 6 in Woodland Hills, the teen-agers joined Brian's father and about 30 friends and relatives, and began raising money for a memorial fund in Brian's honor.

So far, the group has netted about $6,000, most of which will be awarded next year in the form of college scholarships to seniors at Taft High who write essays on the theme of "Choose to Live," Lessin said.

Most of the money was raised through the sale of tickets to Sunday's events, which included a 3.1-mile walkathon and ceremonies at Taft High, and a dinner-dance and auction at Warner Center Marriott Hotel in Woodland Hills.

Although some of Brian's friends took time to remember him as "a charmer with the girls" who liked photography and had "a lot of style," the emphasis during the gathering was on the importance of using seat belts. Almost everyone, it seemed, knew someone who had been critically injured because they failed to buckle up.

"My grandmother died a year ago," said Jonathan Ward, 17, star of the Fox television show "The New Adventures of Beans Baxter." "Just try using your seat belts for a week; it'll become a habit."

Actress Barbara Eden, who played Jeannie in the television show "I Dream of Jeannie," said her cousin died in a head-on collision six weeks ago because she wasn't wearing her seat belt.

But although seat belts are designed to save car occupants in head-on, rear and roll-over collisions, "they're a flip of the coin in a side collision," said Officer Al Hovious, traffic safety coordinator for the Valley Traffic Division. Yet in fatal crashes, including Brian's, taking one minute to fasten seat belts could have meant the difference between life and death, Hovious said.

"Brian's father will have to live with the void for the rest of his life," said Alan Kahan of Marina del Rey, who has known Lessin since 1945. "The only peace of mind he's going to find is working toward a good cause like this."

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