Without speaker’s opposition, House panel considers text banby John Kennedy | February 12th, 2013
A House committee heard experts Tuesday warn about the dangers of distracted driving — with tales of motorists changing CDs, putting on makeup, or grabbing a Smartphone to send a text message, the target for Florida legislation.
But two hours worth of testimony, which included statistical support showing that texting takes drivers’ eyes off the road — leading to inadvertent lane changes and collisions — left Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, feeling pretty good. After 10 years of inaction, Holder said this could be the year lawmakers approve a ban.
“We had really different priorities,” Holder said, looking back on at least part of the past decade, where dozens of bill limiting cell-phone use or texting while driving were introduced each year and failed.
“I think this year is certainly the year,” he added. “We’ve always recognized it’s common sense legislation. It’s a no-brainer to have a law.”
Holder concluded, “Making texting illegal while driving will save lives in Florida.”
Then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, blocked attempts last year 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 drivers from texting.
Last year, Holder’s legislation didn’t get a hearing in the House. But Tuesday, the House Transportation and Highway Safety Subcommittee took testimony from law enforcement, traffic safety advocates, AARP, a high school student leader, and even a University of West Florida psychologist.
Each concluded that banning texting behind the wheel was worthwhile.
Chicagoan Jennifer Smith, who became a nationwide advocate for a texting ban after her mother was killed in 2008 by a distracted driver, said merely trying to warn people against the dangers of a ban was useless. Motorists will continue the practice, unless it’s made illegal, she said.
“I don’t know how much more education we can give people – and it’s still a problem,” Smith told the panel.
Steven Kass, the UWF psychologist, said texting leads people to weave into other lanes, take longer to brake, and drive more slowly than surrounding traffic. He said statistics show cell-phone use and even hands-free phoning also impair driving, although most lawmakers seem wary to extend a proposed ban that far.
“Anytime you add more than one task, performance degrades on one or more of the tasks,” Kass said.
Holder and Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, 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 cellphone without a hands-free device a primary offense for motorists.
Detert’s bill has already been modified to allow for texting if a motorist is stopped at a light or stuck in traffic. Holder said Tuesday he’s open to similar changes if it gets a text-ban through the full Legislature this spring.