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Buckling Down : Onetime Rivals Support Seat Belt Law for Truck Bed Passengers


Two years after losing a spirited campaign to oust Jack O'Connell from his Assembly seat, Connie Los has joined forces with the Ventura County Democratic assemblyman to pass a law that she believes could have saved the life of her only child.

Los, a Santa Barbara Republican socialite, teamed up with the influential speaker pro tem of the Assembly to change state law to require seat belts for passengers riding in the back of pickup trucks.

The death of her 15-year-old son Ryan, who was thrown from the back of a pickup in July, proves again that affairs of the heart pack more power than partisan politics.

Los, an independently wealthy GOP fund-raiser who campaigned for Gov. Pete Wilson, has mounted a letter-writing campaign for the bill co-authored by O'Connell, which once passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Wilson.

She plans to make the rounds in Republican circles this weekend in the first of many lobbying trips she hopes to make to the state Capitol. She is also committed to testifying before the Assembly Transportation Committee at a hearing on the bill, possibly next month.

"I'm hoping Connie can use some of her contacts to get an audience with Gov. Wilson," said O'Connell of Carpinteria.

O'Connell twice has co-authored a bill to prohibit passengers in the back of pickup trucks unless they are properly secured, but it was vetoed by Wilson in 1991 and failed to pass committee last year.

"I work with anyone who has a good idea and is committed to working with me on it, regardless of party affiliation," O'Connell said.

Los, who changed her last name from O'Shaughnessy after remarrying in 1991, said she gladly will call on her political contacts to turn her son's death into something meaningful.

"The joy that I had in my life is gone," she said. "I'll go anywhere and I'll do anything to get the word out that it doesn't make sense. We leash dogs in the back of trucks, and we don't leash humans."

Her son, Ryan O'Shaughnessy, died in a traffic accident July 31 after a pickup truck rolled over three times, ejecting him from the truck bed onto a road in Santa Ynez. Two teen-age girls also riding in the back were injured, but the cab's two seat-belted occupants were unharmed.

"I'm angry that I'm not going to see him grow up, that I'll never meet his wife. I'll never have grandchildren," Los said, pausing to cry as she viewed a collage of family photographs hanging on her son's bedroom wall.

"I want to prohibit someone else from feeling the pain I live with every day."

As now written, California law only requires that children under the age of 12 be accompanied by an adult when riding in the back of a pickup truck. But animals must be restrained under a law sponsored by O'Connell and passed in 1987.

Los likened the change she's pushing to mandating the use of car seat belts and motorcycle helmets.

The auto industry fought the proposal in its first two airings, and the agricultural interests want to exempt farm workers transported to job sites by truck, O'Connell said.

With bipartisan support and a willingness to negotiate narrow exemptions, O'Connell said he gives the bill a good chance this year. The legislation already has the support of law enforcement and the insurance industry, he said.

"We need to make sure we can articulately make the argument that this is necessary to promote road safety and save lives," O'Connell said.

Ironically, in her 1990 campaign, Los criticized O'Connell for introducing the bill requiring dogs to be cross-tethered when riding in the back of trucks. At the time, she called it "junk" legislation that wasted time and money. She is far more sympathetic now.

Despite past political battles, the two have warm regard for each other. "We were friends before the campaign, during the campaign and we're friends after the campaign," O'Connell said.

"It's ironic, here are Jack and I working together to accomplish this important goal, but this is not a party issue," Los said. "It's a people issue."

In past years, Los was well-known for her lavish parties on her 4 1/2-acre spread just north of Santa Barbara. The parties raised money for various charitable and political causes. But now, she said, she has narrowed her focus to one objective: changing the law.

"This is going to be Ryan's gift to California," she said.

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