Florida Lawmaker Wants To Ban Texting While Driving

Feb 17, 2009

The Tampa Tribune--February 17, 2009



Translation: Stop Texting and Drive! That’s the message state Sen. Carey Baker wants to send Florida motorists who exchange short text messages on their cell phones and other handheld devices while driving.

“Really, it all boils down to distracted drivers,” said Baker, R-Eustis, who filed his bill Friday. “People are just doing way to much stuff in their cars instead of driving.”

The bill is the one of several pieces of legislation Florida lawmakers are proposing this year to crack down on texting while driving.

Baker has drafted two versions of his bill. One he filed in late 2008 also would bar minors from talking on cell phones while driving. It would make cell-phone use by teenage drivers enforceable only for those pulled over for speeding or some other violation. Baker said he filed the texting-only bill in case he can’t sell his colleagues on the cell-phone provision.

For years, local and state lawmakers across the country have pushed legislation to stop drivers from gabbing on cell phones. A handful of states and the District of Columbia passed measures, but most states have failed because phoning-while-driving has gained popularity and social acceptance.

Anti-texting proposals are cropping up, though, and have passed in seven states, Washington, Minnesota, Alaska, New Jersey, California, Connecticut and Louisiana.

Baker admitted that he uses a cell phone at times while driving and noted that many adults have legitimate business reasons for doing so. But he never exchanges text messages from behind the wheel, he said.

“People should not be texting while driving,” he said. “It is a dangerous practice. You literally take your eye off the road; you take your hands off the wheel.”

Chuck Hamby, Florida spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said he had not seen Baker’s bills. Historically, he said, the company has supported bans on texting while driving.

“We recognize that texting while driving is not safe,” Hamby said. “Texting is not what drivers should be doing. Their first responsibility is to drive safely. We’re going to support responsible driving.”

Less Risk From Marijuana

Several studies have concluded that texting while driving increases the risk of accidents. In 2007, researchers at Clemson University found that text messaging and using iPods caused drivers to drift out of their lanes 10 percent more often than other drivers. Talking on cell phones did not cause drivers to veer across the white or yellow lines.

In 2008, a study commissioned by the British Royal Automobile Club Foundation found that text-messaging impaired driving ability by 35 percent. Even drivers under the influence of marijuana, whose reaction times were far slower than those of sober drivers, performed better on the road than texters.

Baker would like to pass broader legislation against distracted driving, perhaps by boosting penalties for those who cause accidents because they were talking on a phone or otherwise multitasking.

For now, he hopes to make drivers stop their typing. His most recently filed anti-texting bill would make it a noncriminal traffic infraction with a fine as the penalty. The bill prohibits sending, typing or receiving messages while moving.

The bill probably will require tweaking to accommodate GPS systems and a few other devices, Baker said. The present version carves out a few exemptions. Drivers would face no penalty for text messages that report illegal activity, summon medical help or prevent either personal injury or property damage. The bill also distinguishes between texting and typing names or phone numbers into phones to place a call.

‘How Do You Enforce It?’

It may be difficult for police to discern between drivers typing text messages and, say, typing a phone number, said Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz.

“How do you enforce it?” said Ambler, who sits on the House Criminal & Civil Justice Policy Council.

Ambler and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, are sponsoring a bill that would toughen penalties for young drivers stopped for speeding or some other infraction if they are found to have been using handheld electronic devices behind the wheel.

Enforcing that law, Ambler said, would cost less than an outright prohibition on texting or cell phone use.

The bill, conceived by a Leto High School senior, won the Tampa Bay area’s annual Ought to be a Law contest this year. The bill targets drivers 15 to 17 years old. It would not apply to the use of hands-free wireless devices.

The bill aims largely to increase awareness among young drivers about the dangers of driving distractions, Ambler said, noting that a AAA study ranks Florida among the worst states for teenage traffic fatalities. “The students felt it was a problem among their peers.”

Hamby said that Verizon Wireless has supported restrictions on cell phone use that exempt hands-free devices, but Baker called that approach problematic.

“Several studies show that hands-free use is just as dangerous,” he said. “The distraction is not the physical cell phone. The distraction is the conversation.”