LEGISLATURE

Texting while driving ban gets the green light

 
 
In this file photo, a woman sends text messages while driving. On Thursday, the Florida Senate accepted a House-amended version of the bill to ban texting and driving.
In this file photo, a woman sends text messages while driving. On Thursday, the Florida Senate accepted a House-amended version of the bill to ban texting and driving.
JIM COLE / STF

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

After two days of drama and five years of trying, a texting-while-driving ban is headed to Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The Senate on Thursday accepted a House-amended version of HB 13 and voted 39-1 to approve the ban. Supporters concede it’s not the ideal bill they want but called it a “first step” in a path filled with roadblocks.

“It sends a clear message that too many people have been killed on the road because of texting and distracted driving,” said Karen Morgan, manager of public policy for AAA.

Rep. Ray Pilon, co-sponsor of the bill in the House along with Rep. Doug Holder, R-Venice, pointed out that Gov. Scott’s wife was in a car accident last year caused by a driver who was texting.

“You can draw your own conclusions from that,” said Pilon, R-Sarasota, “but we’re very hopeful he’ll sign it.”

The drama started Tuesday when the House took a bill unanimously approved April 16 by the Senate and added an amendment by Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, that allows cell phone records to be used as evidence only in the “event of a crash resulting in death or personal injury.”

That meant the bill had to go back to the Senate for re-approval in the final days of session. And it put Senate sponsor Nancy Detert, R-Venice, in the position of accepting an amendment that could weaken the bill or conceding defeat for another year.

Detert said this bill “is still a good bill. It still will allow parents today to say to their kids ‘Don’t text while driving,’ it’s against the law. ... It really will save lives.”

The bill makes texting while driving a secondary violation, which means a motorist would have to commit another offense, such as careless driving or speeding, in order to be pulled over. Once stopped, a driver could receive two tickets, one for the first infraction and one for texting.

The penalty would be $30 for a first-time texting offense, a nonmoving violation. A driver would pay a $60 fine and be assessed three points if caught texting while driving again within five years, with more points added if the violation is in a school zone or another serious offense. Texting would be allowed in hands-off, high-tech cars and when a car is stopped at a red light or in a traffic jam.

Pilon said he expects the Legislature will make texting while driving into a stronger primary offense down the road, but the legislation this year promotes “how dangerous this really is.”

The texting problem, Detert said, has become an “epidemic,” with 11 teenagers dying every day in the country because of it. Survey after survey has shown public support for a texting ban, which has turned into “public frustration,” she said.

Trying to come up with a passable bill has been a priority for Detert for four years.

She has long said she’s been caught between those who want to crack down on all distracted driving and those who see any law as a violation of freedom.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, was the lone no vote in the Senate. The House approved the measure 110-6 on Wednesday.

“How does an officer know if you have your BlackBerry and you’re not just looking at what your next appointment is?” Negron said. “I’m very opposed to texting while driving ... but the problem with this is enforceability.”

If Scott signs the bill, it will go into effect Oct. 1.

Currently, Florida is one of five states without any texting ban. Thirty-nine states prohibit texting while driving and six have partial bans.

“It’s a good day for drivers in Florida to be joining, at last, 45 states that have some sort of law,” said Matthew Schroeder, curriculum supervisor for driver’s education and physical education for Broward County Schools. “But I can’t say it’s a great day, I can’t say it’s a day to say, ‘We did it!’

“The law needs more teeth. You should be able to be pulled over for texting while driving.”

Law enforcement officers have said privately it will be difficult to enforce the law, and what’s really needed is either a primary offense or a total ban against hand-held devices.

Getting any bill passed has been “a long and bumpy highway,” Detert said Thursday, but in summing up her decision to accept the House-amended version she said that she has a sign in her office that says, “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the possible. ... That phrase was said in 1867. And 146 years later, it’s still true.”

Also on Thursday, the Legislature sent the governor a bill that makes it a primary offense for drivers of commercial motor vehicles involved in interstate commerce from talking or texting on hand-held phones while driving. HB 7125 gives the state power to enforce federal regulations that apply to vehicles ranging from 18-wheelers to school buses run by private contractors.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Rochelle Koff at rkoff@tampabay.com.

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