A bipartisan push to crack down on texting-while-driving by making it a “primary” offense in Florida is back for the 2016 session, and along with it comes a stern message for Republican legislative leaders: Let the bills be heard.
Efforts in the 2015 session to enhance enforcement of texting-while-driving stalled, with bills in both chambers failing to make it to the floors for up-or-down votes.
Legislation (HB 537/SB 328) filed for 2016 by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, and Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, has yet to be considered. This is the final week when legislative committees meet in preparation for the session that begins in January.
"There's been a divide, and many people have asked me: 'Can you explain why somebody would be against this?' ... I cannot defend or explain why anyone would feel that way," Altman said. "It really is beyond explanation."
Texting-while-driving has been illegal in Florida since 2013, but it’s only a “secondary” offense, which means a driver has to commit some other infraction -- such as driving recklessly, running a red light or even causing an accident -- in order for a law enforcement officer to ticket them.
Making texting-while-driving a primary offense would improve safety on Florida's roadways by reducing crashes and traffic-related deaths, say supporters, like AAA, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association.
Only 1,800 citations were given for texting-while-driving last year in Florida, Altman said.
"We know that a secondary offense does not work; it does not provide the level of enforcement that we need to adequately save human lives," Altman said.
"We have to create a culture of safety here in the state of Florida, and it begins with this bill," said Sen.Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who sponsored the 2015 legislation.
Each of the bills – if they’re heard – has at least three committees to pass (Altman's has four) in order to reach the House or Senate floors, a high bar that’s often difficult for any legislation to clear. But at the very least, advocates and lawmakers said they should have the chance to have those hearings.
"There's a couple people in management of the House of Representatives who are holding this up, and until those people take this bill out of the drawer and have a fair hearing on the bill and everyone knows where everyone stands on texting and driving, this is not going to go anywhere," said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.
When asked for names of those blocking the legislation, Slosberg said "talk to the speaker," referring to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli. Altman and Perry told reporters to check which committees the bills had been referred to. Committee chairmen are the agenda-setters and gatekeepers; they decide which bills get heard and when.
Perry's bill is in the House Highway & Waterway Safety Subcommittee, led by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. Altman's bill awaits a hearing in the Senate Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities Committee, led by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. Both committees have met only once this fall.
"Nobody's hindering it right here, at this time, but we'll see what transpires when we do get an opportunity for the hearing," Perry said.
All states except Montana and Arizona ban texting-while-driving in some form, but Florida is one of only a handful of states where it’s a secondary offense for all drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other states that list it as a secondary offense are Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota; in Virginia, it’s a secondary offense for drivers under 18 years old but a primary offense for adult drivers.
Legislation has also been filed for 2016 that would stiffen penalties for texting-while-driving only in school zones by proposing to double the fine for doing so, a provision that was also included in the 2015 bills. Those bills also haven’t been considered in committee yet this fall.