TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A Senate panel on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill imposing a statewide ban on texting while driving, but the road to becoming law is long for a measure that has already died the previous three years.
Critics in the House have repeatedly killed it, calling it unnecessary government intrusion into people's lives.
The Senate Communications committee on Wednesday voted 9-0 for the bill (SB 52). The bill outlaws texting by drivers but exempts police and other emergency vehicles.
The proposed law makes texting subject to secondary enforcement. That means police could cite drivers for it only if they had been pulled over for another violation such as speeding.
An initial violation would lead to a $30 fine and — if texting resulted in a crash — the driver would be assessed six points. Points lead to increased insurance rates.
"This epidemic has to stop," said Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican and the bill's sponsor.
Courtney Heidelberg, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said recent statistics on texting and driving are not readily available. Florida highway safety records show, however, of the 171,538 Florida crash reports filed during the first 10 months of 2011, 149 of drivers in those wrecks were known to be texting.
No doubt, texting and driving at the same time can be dangerous. The federal government says a texting driver is 23 times more likely to crash than one not texting. A study by AAA put the figure lower at six times.
Drivers who text do take their eyes off the road for almost 5 seconds, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry. At 55 mph, a driver can cross the equivalent of a football field while not looking. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have bans.
An array of interest groups supports the bill, including AAA, the AARP, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida PTA, and groups representing automobile dealers, automobile makers and trial attorneys.
Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, said he supports the bill because he has a 15-year-old at home about to become a driver.
"We want to make sure kids across Florida know this is a no-no," he said. One in seven drivers have admitted to reading or sending a text message while driving, according to state figures, and nearly half of all 16- and 17-year-old drivers text and drive.
Detert explained that the bill wasn't meant to target typing-free texting, or "talk to text." Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, leaned over to Sen. Chris Smith and whispered, "Don't you have to push a button to talk-to-text?" Smith showed her how it worked on his phone, after which she said to him, "I think that should be included." But she later voted for the measure.
House Speaker Will Weatherford has said he's not taking a position on the no-texting bill, offering to let his members vote their conscience. Critics say that instead of creating new law, police should enforce careless driving and reckless driving laws already on the books.
A 2010 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute, which looks at insurance claims, said crashes didn't go down in states that banned texting by drivers. In fact, it found that reported collisions went up slightly.
The researchers guessed that bans are making a bad situation worse by causing drivers, knowing it's illegal, to move their phones down and out of sight when they text. That takes their eyes even further away from the road.
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