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Texting while driving ban possible in Florida next year

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida remains one of 15 states without a ban on texting while driving, even as more people admit to the habit and support a law that would deter it.

There’s a chance -- a small one -- state lawmakers will enact a ban during their 60-day legislative session that starts in January. Experts, though, are split on whether the bans make the roads safer.

A few state senators breathed life into the conversation last week when they approved a proposed (and pretty mild) ban on texting while driving in its first committee hearing.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, would make texting while driving punishable as a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement could not pull motorists over simply for seeing them text. A citation would only be issued on top of some other offense, such as speeding, reckless driving or after a crash.

Bans have failed in Florida over recent years despite widespread public support. Defeat usually comes at the hands of Republicans who view the law as an intrusion of personal liberty. Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, famously blocked a proposed texting ban from being heard in her House committee in 2010, a move that killed the bill.

It is Detert’s third time sponsoring what she called her “no-brainer” idea, SB 416. She is also a proponent of small government, she said, but not when privacy overrides public safety.

“I am a big fan of personal freedom, doing whatever you want in your own automobile, as long as you’re not taking me out with you,” she told the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

Members voted 10-0 to move her bill to its next stop. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the committee chairman, said his original plan was to vote against it, but Detert’s proposal won him over with its specificity.

“I think it’s important we send this out of here with a loud message, so I’m going to vote with you today,” Latvala said.

Under Detert’s bill, it would still be okay to text at a red light, use GPS, talk on the phone or dial a number while driving. The ban would extend to composing emails and instant messages.

The first violation would result in a $30 fine. A second violation within five years of the first would cost $60 and 3 points added against the driver’s license. Six points would be added if the use of a wireless communications device results in a crash.

Lobbyists from AAA, AT&T and AARP spoke in support of the measure.

Thirty-five states have introduced texting bans on all drivers. Other states have added restrictions for certain groups, such as teens or bus drivers. Florida has no such laws.

“It’s time that we caught up with the rest of the nation,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, during committee. “Because texting is addictive.”

Drivers have conflicting views: They overwhelmingly believe texting should be illegal when asked by pollsters. But more and more admit to sending messages while driving.

A national survey released by the federal government Thursday found that about 50 percent of U.S. drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 reported texting or emailing while driving. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called on Congress this week to enact a national ban against texting while driving.

About 95 percent of drivers agree sending emails or texts while on the road is unacceptable, and 87 percent are in favor of laws against texting while driving, according to the AAA Foundation’s 2011 Traffic Safety Culture Index.

But two studies show traffic safety has not improved in states with bans on cellphone use and texting while driving, according to two studies from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which car insurance companies fund to research ways to reduce crashes.

“Lawmakers should not expect a big safety payoff from these laws,” said Russ Rader, the group’s spokesman. “We’re just not seeing the effects we thought we would.”

Some lawmakers are trying other ways to curb distracted driving. An idea (SB 122) from Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, would require driver improvement and learner’s permit courses to include a segment on the hazards of using phones and other devices at the wheel. It passed its first committee hurdle Wednesday.

And Reps. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, have introduced a ban (HB 187/ SB 930) on minors using cellphones on the road. Slosberg wants to include school bus drivers, too.

While the Senate has traditionally been warm to the ban, having passed it on the floor in 2010, the House is another story.

Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, is behind Detert’s bill in the House. He has not yet persuaded his colleagues to bring it up.

Pilon, a former patrol officer and road supervisor, has tried winning over the chairman of the first House committee that will hear the proposal, Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna. So far, no promises.

“He said, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ “ Pilon said, “so that was encouraging.”

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