By John Kennedy Eds: For immediate release. c.2013 Cox Newspapers
TALLAHASSEE (Cox Newspapers) — More than a decade since Florida lawmakers first called for limits on motorist cellphone use, advocates say a ban on texting behind the wheel may soon win approval.
Despite dozens of bills since 2002, no restriction on motorist cellphone use or texting ever has cleared the Florida Legislature, but 2013 could be different.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, blocked attempts in 2012 to have a texting ban heard, after the measure was OK’d by the state Senate. But Cannon left the House in November due to term limits. Supporters say his departure may help clear the way for Florida to become the nation’s 40th state to prohibit all drivers from texting.
“The public has been screaming for it,” said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.
Slosberg’s daughter, Dori, died at age 14 in a 1996 car crash not involving a cellphone, on Boca Raton’s Palmetto Park Road. The state’s seat belt law is named for her and Katie Marchetti, another teen killed in a later wreck.
AAA Auto Club South says a survey it commissioned shows 87 percent of motorists support laws prohibiting texting or emailing while driving.
Still, the same survey shows that 69 percent of Americans acknowledge talking on their cellphones while driving within the past 30 days, while 24 percent say they have sent texts or emails.
Slosberg and other supporters of efforts to blunt distracted driving
say they realize any changes remain a tough sell.
Cannon’s successor, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has been cautious when speaking about the possibility of a texting ban.
“Equally important as our safety are our individual rights, and in the case of texting while driving, there should
be no exception,”
Weatherford said after U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Florida last month and urged lawmakers to adopt a ban. But Ryan Duffy, a Weatherford spokesman, told The Palm Beach Post last week that “texting while driving legislation will receive a fair hearing in the House.”
Gov. Rick Scott, who vetoed legislation last year that would have ordered the state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to develop education programs on the dangers of distracted driving, also may be softening his resistance. Scott this fall asked the state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to look into the risk of texting while driving, after learning that traffic fatalities were on the rise in Florida.
While Scott and highway officials conceded they weren’t sure what role texting or other distractions played, he added at the time, “I think we ought to continue to look at ways to make our state safer.”
Three text-ban bills already have been introduced for the 2013 session that begins in March.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, have proposed identical measures (SB 52, HB 13) that would make texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning motorists could be ticketed only if law-enforcement officials had stopped them for another reason.
A ticket could cost first-time offenders $30, plus court costs.
But the bills also include exemptions allowing people to use phones to check maps, use voice-commands or listen to the radio through the phone.
Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is sponsoring legislation (SB 74) that would make texting or using a cell phone without a hands-free device a primary offense for motorists.
Sachs defeated Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale in November in the Legislature’s only matchup of incumbent lawmakers. Bogdanoff had blocked a texting ban from being heard by the full Senate in 2010.
Sachs said her legislation will save lives, reduce injuries and protect property.
“I think we will get behind whatever turns out to be the best of all the bills,” Sachs said. “It may mean that this is the year we finally get smart.”
Some kind of ban on hand-held devices behind the wheel -- usually aimed at minors -- has been proposed in every regular session of the Florida Legislature since 2002.
The bills have been filed by both Democrats and Republicans -- with as many as a dozen filed in 2011 alone.
None has become law. Arguments against restrictions usually pivot around the theme that they are unwanted government intrusions.
Cannon set the course for the legislation’s demise when he said the Republican-led Legislature was wary of “government regulating private behavior.” A text ban never got a hearing in the House, despite a call by the National Transportation Safety Board in December 2011 that all states enact restrictions, except for emergencies.
Slosberg said his bill (HB 61), which would prohibit drivers under 18 from using a cell phone while driving, may be a better starting point. He said limiting the restriction to youngsters may quiet those who oppose any broader bans affecting motorists.
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, has filed a similar measure (SB 152) in the Senate.
“It’s easy,” Slosberg said. “What parent wants their kids talking on a cell while they’re driving?”
John Kennedy writes for The Palm Beach Post. Email: john(underscore)kennedy(at)pbpost.com.
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