Fla. lawmakers pass texting-while-driving ban
Published: Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 6:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 8:53 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — A five-year legislative fight to ban texting while driving on Florida roadways ended Thursday when the Senate sent a texting ban (SB 52) to Gov. Rick Scott.
The final 39-1 vote came after a last-minute controversy emerged this week when the House attached an amendment to the bill that critics said could weaken enforcement of the ban.
But on Thursday, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, sponsor of the Senate measure, agreed to accept the House amendment rather than jeopardize passage of the bill in the session’s final days.
Detert recounted the long effort to pass the measure, with the ban historically stalling in the House, where last year it wasn’t even given a committee hearing.
“I think with one and a half days left of the session, with the history of this bill, I move to concur with the House” amendment, Detert told the Senate.
Earlier this week, the House changed the bill to restrict law enforcement officers from accessing a driver’s wireless device records to only cases in which accidents caused a death or personal injury. Opponents of the amendment said it would make it harder for police to charge motorists with texting violations.
Detert, who didn’t like the late change, told the Senate that the amendment had some merit and “it probably may cover us about any constitutional questions about the invasion of privacy” — in light of the Florida Supreme Court ruling about the need for search warrants to obtain cellphone records.
But while Detert had reservations about the amendment, she credited House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, for letting the texting bill — sponsored by Reps. Doug Holder, R-Venice, and Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota in the House — be heard in House committees and on the floor.
“For first time ever they have a speaker over there that allowed the members to speak on this bill,” Detert said. “That was the good news. The bad news was I didn’t like what they said.”
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, a former Senate president, said Detert made the right call in not removing the House amendment and sending the bill back with a day left in the 60-day session.
“I know this isn’t exactly what she wanted when she started out,” Lee said. “But I think it is a mature and sophisticated legislator that knows when they are jeopardizing something on the bounce on the 59th day.”
Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, criticized the House for amending the bill.
“It’s just a shame that the House is playing politics here with such an important issue,” Soto said. “This was something that everybody agreed on. And we send it over there, and they bring it back in a way that dilutes it down.”
Under the bill, texting while driving will be a secondary non-moving violation, meaning motorists would have to be stopped for another reason before they are charged with a violation. First-time violators would face a $30 fine, plus court costs.
Detert said there is still ample opportunity for law enforcement officers to charge motorists with the violations since they can pull them over for erratic driving and then add the texting violation. “This amendment doesn’t really stop the officer from writing that ticket,” Detert said.
Detert said passage of the bill reflects the philosophy that is encapsulated on a sign in her legislative office: “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the possible.”
“This bill is still a good bill,” Detert said.
If Scott signs the bill as expected, Detert said Florida will join the overwhelming majority of states that have made it illegal to text and drive for “the first time ever.” Detert and the other bill sponsors have said that will be a particularly important message for younger drivers.
“Now it’s against the law,” she said. “I’m happy about that.”