State Politics

Bill to ban texting while driving moves forward

TALLAHASSEE — Here’s a new reason to keep your thumbs on the wheel and your eyes on the road: Action to outlaw texting while driving is off to a speedy start in the Legislature.

A House committee unanimously approved a proposed bill Wednesday that would ban sending or reading text messages while operating a car or truck — and, presumably, cut down on lane-weaving inattention, a leading indicator of a distracted texter at the wheel.

“Obviously, it is time in the state of Florida to ban texting while driving,” said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, who introduced the bill. “It’s a public safety issue.”

A companion bill has been filed in the Senate. Gov. Charlie Crist said he favors passage.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already ban texting while driving, and federal officials are encouraging other states to join the movement.

Under the Florida measure, a first offense would be a nonmoving violation with a fine of $30 plus court costs. A second offense within five years would be a moving violation, costing the texting driver $60 plus court costs. If a texting motorist causes a crash, six points would be assessed against the driver’s license.

Texting would be permitted in legally parked vehicles. Exemptions to the law would be granted to police officers, firefighters and emergency service workers, and to anyone trying to report a crime or an emergency.

No opposition emerged Wednesday, with virtually everyone agreeing that texting while driving is a growing menace. Several lawmakers and others, however, expressed concerns over the difficulty of enforcement.

Detecting texting in a moving vehicle is challenging enough, they said, but the measure makes texting while driving a “secondary offense.” That means a police officer would need another — or “primary” — reason to stop the driver before issuing a citation for texting, further complicating enforcement.

Sponsors conceded the point, but said they feared that a tougher bill would have no chance of passing. Even this measure, a consensus bill that combines elements of several other proposed texting remedies, still must negotiate a long road through the Legislature.

“My biggest concern is getting a law on the books,” Holder said.

Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, chairman of the Roads, Bridges and Ports Policy Committee that forwarded the proposed bill to the House, put it more colorfully.

“When you’re offered a ham sandwich, sometimes it’s better to take the ham sandwich instead of waiting for the steak that might never come,” he said. “By having a law on the books, we will get compliance that we don’t have today.”

Safety experts say that cell phone use already contributes to 1.6 million U.S. motor accidents a year and texting while driving has the potential to create a much worse epidemic of crashes, a view that many observant Florida motorists might not find controversial.

The risk of a crash or a near miss is 23 times higher while texting than while driving without distractions, according to a July 2009 report by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The risk of an accident while dialing a cell phone is six times higher than normal, the researchers said. The difference: the additional time spent composing and reading text messages.

The Wireless Association says the number of text messages sent by Americans has exploded from 57.2 billion in 2005 to 1.36 trillion in 2009, not all of them sent or received by motorists, of course.

Younger, less experienced drivers tend to send more text messages than older, more experienced drivers, according to a study by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety. Interestingly, a related study found no reduction in crash rates in states that imposed bans on hand-held phones, possibly because drivers found other ways to become distracted.

AAA, formerly the Automobile Association of America, said its members overwhelmingly favor laws against texting while driving. The National Safety Council wants to ban the practice, a representative said, but strongly prefers to make the crime a primary offense.