Legislature revives bill to ban texting while driving


Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 8:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 8:07 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Only Florida and a handful of other states have done nothing to keep drivers from texting while they're behind the wheels of their vehicles.

Polls show overwhelming public support for the ban. Law enforcement groups, medical authorities, Florida businesses, telecommunications companies, car dealers and manufacturers, AAA and the AARP all want it done.

Yet for the last four years, the Florida Legislature has balked at passing a ban on texting while driving.

On Wednesday, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who has led the fight to impose the ban, began her latest effort by winning unanimous approval for her bill (SB 52) in the Senate Transportation Committee.

The 9-0 vote didn't come easily. Some senators questioned whether Detert's bill (SB 52) was tough enough.

Her bill would make texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement officers would need another reason for pulling over a driver before they could be charged with the violation, which would carry a first-time fine of $60 plus court costs.

Detert said she would support stronger provisions in the bill. But after seeing past efforts fail, she said she is seeking a version that could win acceptance in the House, where last year a similar bill was never heard.

"This isn't the perfect bill," Detert said. "Some of you want a Rolls Royce, and you're going to get a Volkswagen … but this is what has evolved after four years of trying."

Detert also called it "an embarrassment" that Florida was in a small minority of states that have done nothing about the problem. Some 39 states have enacted driving-while-texting bans, with most of those being enforced as primary violations.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, particularly urged a tougher approach, saying Detert may be trying "to cut a deal too early" in the legislative process, scheduled to run into early May.

Lee, whose committee will also review the bill, suggested lawmakers could make the texting ban as well as other distracted driving practices part of the existing law that prohibits careless driving — which would increase the fine and make it primary offense.

Lee said by keeping the ban as a secondary offense "you haven't done anything."

"Unless I'm doing something else wrong, I can text all day long and you can't stop me," Lee said.

Besides trying craft a bill that could win support in the House, Detert said passing any kind of ban would send a strong signal against the practice to Floridians, particularly younger drivers.

"I think having a law on the books would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal," Detert said.

Several groups, including AAA and AutoNation, supported the bill.

"Sure lots of laws are hard to enforce, but try and tell that to some parent who has lost a child," said Lee Moffitt, a former House speaker who is lobbying for those groups. "Florida needs to declare loudly and clearly that is unacceptable behavior."

Detert's bill must clear two more committee before reaching the Senate floor — the Communications, Energy and Public Utilities and Judiciary committees.

A similar bill (HB 13) is pending in the House, although an initial hearing has yet to be scheduled. It has been referred to three House committees.

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