BY JOHN FRANK and KATIE SANDERS
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Steve Augello’s daughter died in a 2008 car accident shortly after sending a text message from her cellphone.
Months later, the Spring Hill resident came to Tallahassee, like many grieving parents before him, asking for a law to banish what led to the grief. For him, it’s text messaging while driving.
“I don’t want to see any parents suffer the way we are,” he said.
Statistics supported his case, but Augello left Tallahassee disappointed. And not for lack of trying: No fewer than 10 bills prohibiting text messaging or cellphone use while driving died in 2009 without even a committee vote.
To understand why is a lesson in Florida politics. Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater explained: “There is a sense that Americans have a responsibility to monitor their behavior.” Others blame the power of special interests or lack of time in the legislative session.
This year, supporters promise, is different. This year, they say, the bill will pass.
A few indicators give supporters hope. More and more lawmakers are hearing tragic stories about deaths attributed to texting while driving, particularly crashes involving teenage drivers, and are getting on board. Lawmakers introduced 17 bills on the topic this year. At least 35 representatives and senators are sponsors or co-sponsors — more than 20 percent of the Legislature. And a few months ago, Gov. Charlie Crist announced his support.
“Florida is ready to say we are no longer going to tolerate this irresponsible activity,” said state Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, one of the early proponents who saw his legislation collect dust for the previous two years. “This year is a different year.”
In recent months, a number of studies emerged that show how texting contributes to deaths and wrecks. One released in July by Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute found that drivers of heavy trucks were 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash if texting, and, for all drivers, reaching for an electronic device increased the likelihood of an accident sixfold. At least 28 states and Washington, D.C., have limited texting while driving.
All this momentum led to a breakthrough Tuesday: the promise of a House workshop on the various bills, scheduled for next week. The move is a precursor to a committee debate on the bill, which is a precursor to a committee vote, which is a precursor to many more committee debates and votes, which is a precursor to full House consideration.
All this must occur in the Senate, too. But still, it’s the first time any legislation to prohibit texting while driving has gotten such a serious review.
“Nobody could argue you can drive safely while texting,” said Kevin Bakewell with AAA Auto Club South, one of the many groups supporting the effort.
Roadblocks remain, and supporters even compare the texting-while-driving measure to a bill last year that made seat belt use mandatory — legislation that took 10 years to pass because of concerns about intruding into people’s private lives.
“I think there are people who were concerned and that we were trying to regulate persons’ lives,” said state Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who sponsored similar legislation for the last two years. “I think now because of national attention it will pass.”
Rep. Gary Aubuchon, who will spearhead the workshop as chairman of the House Roads, Bridges and Ports Policy Committee, wants a consensus measure to emerge. This won’t be easy given that the bills diverge on a number of issues. Should it apply to everyone or just teenagers? Should police be able to stop drivers for texting, or would it be just a secondary offense? Are there exceptions for usage? What penalty is appropriate?
“Each House member will have an opportunity to present their bill and why their ideas are the best ideas,” said Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral. “The idea is to distill the best thoughts and bring something forward.”
But as for predictions about whether it will pass the House and Senate this year, experienced lawmakers are cautious.
“It’s impossible to know,” said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a supporter. “When you think something is dead, it gets resurrected in the waning hours of session. When you think a bill is going to pass no problem, all the sudden it gets stopped in its tracks.”