State Politics

Texting ban stuck in House committee

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate is poised to pass a long-championed ban on texting while driving in what traffic advocates predicted would be a banner year for driver safety, but there is barely a whimper of hope that the legislation will become law.

Although 23 other states have similar statutes on their books and the bill has wide support, it has been parked in a House committee for more than a month, with no chance of moving forward.

“It’s not stalled,” said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, chairwoman of the House Finance and Tax Council. “It’s dead.”

Bogdanoff said she told lawmakers she will not hear the bill in her committee because it targets careless behavior already prohibited under Florida’s traffic laws. Her opposition has created a substantial hurdle for a measure lawmakers vowed to finally push through the legislative process after years of failed efforts.

The fate of the texting-while-driving bill illuminates the unbridled influence of a powerful lawmaker’s grip, especially during the final days of session when each tick of the clock falls like a firing squad on unheard bills.

“In this stage in the session, it is very difficult to get something that has stalled in the House to have life again because there is not very much time to get things done,” said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, who worked with other House legislators to craft the bill. “What can you do when someone just locks down and says, ‘I am not going to move forward,’ which she clearly has done?”

SB 448 seeks to make texting while driving a secondary traffic offense, meaning police officers would have to pull someone over for another violation before they could write a citation for composing or reading a message on an electronic device.

First-time offenders would face a $30 fine. A second violation could cost $60.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said the legislation could help change the state’s driving culture.

“This is finely tuned,” she said. “It is not the distracted driver. It is not hands-free cell phone. It is strictly driving while texting.”

At least 17 bills on the topic were introduced this session, with roughly 35 representatives and senators voicing support — or more than 20 percent of the Legislature. Gov. Charlie Crist indicated he would likely make the texting ban law. There was also the potential carrot of federal dollars. Congress is considering withholding up to 25 percent of federal highway money for any state that doesn’t outlaw texting while driving.

“I thought this was the year,” said Holder, adding, “It is the most dangerous of the distracted offenses.”

The bill unanimously passed through one House committee before it was sent to Bogdanoff in mid March. She didn’t like what she saw.

Bogdanoff said she told lawmakers to come up with a broader measure that addresses all motorist distractions, such as applying makeup while driving or looking at navigation devices.

“There are a number of things people do in their car that is distracting,” she said. “The question is how do we treat these distractions?”

Bogdanoff called the texting bill “intellectually dishonest.”

“You must have your vehicle under control at all times,” she said. “That is the law.”

The Florida Sheriffs Association took a neutral position on the bill, but law enforcement officials publicly expressed doubt that they could enforce it.

The bill allows officers to use billing records as evidence in court, but it doesn’t explain what officers should look for when hunting down illegal texters.

“How could you see that someone was texting while they were driving?” said Bill Farmer, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Sumter County sheriff. “There are so many other uses of a telephone. … Where does it begin, where does it stop?”

Still, traffic safety advocates have rallied for years for a legal answer to what they see as an unprecedented danger.

Texting while driving causes reaction times to decline by 35 percent and steering control by 91 percent, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

“Although it is true that there are a lot of distractions, texting is just so predominant,” said Amy Stracke, managing director of traffic safety advocacy for the AAA Auto Club South. “It has grown so quickly that we feel like it merits special attention because of the having-the-eyes-off-the-road issue.”

Stracke said she has implored proponents to voice their support of the measure to Bogdanoff and other House leaders.

“If it gets voted down, it gets voted down, but we just want it to have a fair hearing,” said Stracke.