Early in the morning on June 28, Chloe Arenas drove her car off a highway exit in Orlando, careening across six lanes and into a retention pond.
By the time police arrived, the 21-year-old University of Central Florida student had died.
Her story is not an isolated incident, especially in Florida. More people die here than in any other state from crashes that submerge their cars, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 2013, there were 32 such fatalities in Florida.
But a close friend of Arenas is trying to change that.
Clarissa Lindsey wants the Florida Legislature to make sure no one else dies in the same way. She’s using an online petition to drum up support for a law requiring that guard rails be constructed on roads that are close to water.
“My best friend just passed away in a retention pond that didn’t have any kind of protective barrier,” said Lindsey. “It’s a huge problem in Florida.”
The cause of Arenas’ death is still under investigation.
Arenas was studying biomedical sciences and wanted to be a veterinarian for large animals, Lindsey said. Family and friends donated in Arenas’ memory to Two Tails Ranch, an elephant habitat outside Gainesville, a testament to an animal she especially loved.
“She was probably the funniest person I’ve ever met,” said Lindsey, who met Arenas in Maryland when she was two years old and remained her best friend, even after Arenas’ family moved to Florida in 2002. Lindsey will remember her friend as “full of life, bright, vibrant.”
To drum up support for the guard rails, what she’s calling Chloe’s Law, Lindsey started a petition a week ago on Change.org, demanding that lawmakers make reducing deaths in submerged cars a priority. By early Monday afternoon, it had attracted about 5,000 signatures.
“Within five minutes of the accident,” Lindsey said, “I knew there needed to be a change.”
After some research, she says it became clear that fixing that one intersection on Alafaya Trail and S.R. 408 in Orlando wouldn’t be enough.
Even with growing public support and attention, it will take a lot of hard work to get her bill signed into law.
Chris Sloan knows the difficulties of a private citizen navigating the Legislature all too well. He fought this spring to ban high-voltage lights from backyard swimming pools after his seven-year-old son, Calder, died at their North Miami home.
“It was just so much harder and so much more Byzantine than I expected,” he said. “You’ve got to have a lot of fortitude.”
Sloan succeeded in getting part of his legislation passed through the Senate as a part of another bill. It wasn’t everything he and the bill’s sponsors wanted, but it was a good compromise, he said.
Then, in the last days of April, just before the compromise was scheduled for a vote in the House, Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merrit Island, announced the chamber would be cutting its session short.
“This is a two- or three-year process, and it was a bit naive of me to think we could do it in one year,” Sloan said. “We won some battles; we lost some battles; but we haven’t lost the war.”
Lindsey faces many of the same struggles Sloan did: attracting a House member and a senator to sponsor the legislation, enduring multiple committee hearings and votes, and convincing lawmakers that Chloe’s Law should be their priority. This last hurdle is often difficult with so many bills being shepherded through the Capitol each year by special interest groups and well-connected lobbyists.
But she says she’s prepared to get her hands dirty. She’s learned a lot about public policy as a pre-law student at the University of Baltimore, where she’s taken classes in the legislative process.
“I never thought that I would have to use it,” she said. “But I’m glad that I was kind of prepared as much as you can be.”
Still, the Florida Legislature will likely be a real-world education in how political decisions are made.
“You have to approach it as almost a full-time job,” said Sloan. “Whoever’s doing this has to be willing to go to Tallahassee and literally sit in people’s offices and wait for appointments and be seen.”
Legislative assistants and lawyers who have experience turning ideas into laws have been helpful, Lindsey said. A member of the Florida House has volunteered to sponsor the legislation, although she’s not yet willing to say who.
Lindsey will try to write the bill herself once she hammers out details with the sponsors. Ideally, the language would require a guard rail within a reasonable distance of roads near a body of water.
Despite the difficulties, Lindsey has a reason to stay focused on her goal. She’s motivated by memories of Arenas, a friend who looked out for others first. Lindsey remembers her birthday two years ago, when Arenas surprised her with a cake that she could barely afford on a college student’s budget.
“The girl literally had $8 to her name, and she used it to buy me a birthday cake,” Lindsey said. “It just shows how giving she was.”
Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.
Want to help?
You can sign the petition supporting more guard rails on Florida’s roadways at https://www.change.org/p/protect-drivers-from-drowning