TALLAHASSEE -- It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. Russell Hurd and his wife were waiting for his 26-year-old daughter Heather and her fiancé at Walt Disney World on Jan. 3, 2008, to meet with a wedding planner.
But the young couple never arrived.
Heather, who worked for the theme park, was killed, and her fiancé injured, in a nine-car crash caused by a 61-year-old tractor trailer driver who was distracted by his company’s electronic messaging device.
Margay Schee, of Ocala, was 13 when a truck driver talking on his cellphone hit her school bus, which was stopped with its flashers blinking. Margay was pinned under the seat, the bus caught fire, and she was trapped inside.
Steve Augello, of Spring Hill, started worrying when his 17-year-old daughter Allessandra was late getting home from a play rehearsal. Allessandra was hit head-on by a 19-year-old girl who was believed to be texting her boyfriend.
Three scenarios, same lethal outcome: victims killed by drivers distracted by cellphones, a problem outgoing U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has called a “deadly epidemic.”
Thirty-nine states ban text messaging for all drivers. Five states ban teens from texting while driving. Florida, on the other hand, is one of six states without a texting ban for drivers.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, have been sponsoring texting bans for years without success, but they’re pushing hard again this year.
Detert’s Senate bill passed its first committee stop and is moving up the legislative chain. Holder’s companion bill will be introduced early March. “I think this is the year that the Legislature is willing to move on it,” Detert said.
There’s strong support for a ban. The Florida sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ associations, the Florida League of Cities and a host of other groups support legislation to curb texting while driving.
A majority of 800 registered Florida voters — 71 percent — said last year that they supported a texting while driving ban in a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
“The stars may be lining up for something bold here,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who voted for Detert’s bill but voiced concerns that it needed more teeth.
The proposal by Detert and Holder makes texting while driving a secondary offense, which means a driver caught messaging has to commit another offense, such as speeding or running a stop sign, before an officer can stop the driver.
Once stopped, a driver could receive two tickets, one for the infraction and one for texting. The fine would be $30 for a first-time texting offense, $60 if it occurs again within five years. Amendments would allow texting in hands-off high-tech cars and when a car is stopped at a red light or in a traffic jam.
More than 100,000 crashes a year involve drivers who are texting, according to the National Safety Council. When people text and drive, their eyes are down for an average of 4.6 seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that’s like “being blind” while driving the length of a football field, Detert said.
Other bills are also moving through the Legislature.
Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is sponsoring legislation that would make texting or using a cellphone without a hands-free device a primary offense for drivers.