State Politics

Local lawmaker’s texting bill gains traction

MANATEE — For three years, state Rep. Doug Holder has proposed a bill that would prohibit drivers from reading, writing or sending text messages on a wireless device like a cellphone.

For the past two years, it went nowhere.

But this year, the measure has suddenly developed legs.

Maybe it has to do with Oprah Winfrey, Holder said, noting, “When Oprah devotes an entire show to it, you know its hot.”

Maybe it has to do with nearly $200 million the federal government might withhold from Florida in federal highway funds if the state fails to pass such a bill, as has been proposed, said Holder, R-Sarasota.

“It’s a compelling motivator,” he observed about the voting habits of his fellow dollar-starved lawmakers.

By opening day of the legislative session Tuesday, the Roads, Bridges and Ports Policy Committee had already reviewed his bill, and he had an appointment with its chairman to discuss redrafting.

“This is the first time it’s ever been heard, we’re very happy it’s been workshopped, and I’m looking forward to working it through,” Holder said of House Bill 41.

“I’m very confident this is our year, I think we’ve got a really good shot at it.”

The bill prohibits operation of a moving motor vehicle while reading, manually writing or typing, or sending messages on an electronic wireless communications device; it also provides exceptions and penalties, according to the Florida House Web site.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, has filed companion Senate Bill 448.

In Congress, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has introduced a bill to require states to approve a ban on texting while driving, or lose 25 percent of federal highway money. Based on 2005 figures, the Florida portion would equal nearly $200 million, Holder told lawmakers last month.

If a ban is enacted, the state also could be eligible for an additional $3 million in existing federal transit funds, he added.

Many studies show how dangerous distractions like mobile devices can be, Holder said.

“If someone is texting while driving, they’re 23 times more likely to be in an accident than if they’re not,” he said.

AAA Auto Club South supports a ban, according to Amy Stracke, the club’s managing director of traffic safety advocacy.

“We support banning texting while driving; we support banning cellphones for novice drivers under the age of 18, as part of a graduated driver’s licensing,” she said.

Last fall, the auto club launched a campaign to encourage all 50 states to prohibit texting while driving, she said, adding that so far, 19 have complied.

A study last year found that the public fears the dangers of texting while driving almost as much as it does drunk driving, she said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called distracted driving a “menace to society.”

The Obama administration reported that nearly 6,000 people were killed and a half-million injured last year in vehicle crashes connected to driver distraction, a striking indication of the dangers of talking on cellphones and texting while driving.

Then there’s Oprah, whose Web site Wednesday listed 145,049 people who had signed a pledge to make their cars a “No Phone Zone,” and to put an end to distracted driving.

In other Florida Legislature news, state Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, met Wednesday with Gov. Charlie Crist to discuss a gambling agreement potentially worth millions of dollars per year to the state.

Galvano said afterward that negotiations are continuing with casino operator The Seminole Tribe of Florida, but that the parties had not reached a final resolution.

— The Associated Press and the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.

Sara Kennedy, Herald staff writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.