Renewed fight begins for bill to ban texting and driving

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.

Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, has filed two bills. One would make it vehicular homicide if someone using an electronic device caused a fatal crash. The other would prohibit anyone under 18 from using a “wireless communications device or telephone.”

A 2012 State Farm survey found that more than 57 percent of teens with a driver’s license admitted to texting while driving, though advocates said the problem is hardly limited to teens.

One of the most compelling speakers at a recent House workshop on the matter was North Marion High student body president Wesley Sapp.

Sapp formed a group called Drive for Life after 10 North Marion students or graduates died in accidents in a five-year span. “We didn’t feel like we should be attending our friends’ funerals,” or “having a moment of silence” way too often, Sapp told legislators.

His Drive for Life group began a statewide initiative to educate students on “what was happening — how our decisions behind the wheel are affecting our lives and others.”

The loss of his friend, Margay Schee, has also motivated him to speak out against distracted driving. The day she died, “it was a bright and sunny September day and Margay was on her bus coming home from school like any day,” he said. “The bus was at a complete stop and the lights were flashing. The bus was struck from the back by a semi driver. … She was just 13 years old.”

“Margay’s mother will never see her graduate, her mother will never watch her get married or go to college,” Sapp said. “It takes a lot to remember what her smile looks like, it takes a lot to remember what her voice sounds like, what that little sparkle in her eye looked like.”

Making texting illegal will help change habits, Sapp said. Using a seat belt is “second nature,” to his generation and eventually using a cellphone while driving “won’t be acceptable.”

Asking legislators to pass the texting ban, Sapp told them: “It will save the lives of your loved ones and your children’s children.”

Contact Rochelle Koff at rkoff@tampabay.com.