Shut up and drive: Will FL legislators finally succeed in passing a texting-while-driving ban?

Last year no fewer than 17 different bills regarding texting while driving were proposed by lawmakers in both branches of the government.

A Senate bill received overwhelming support, passing 34-4, but died in the House when Ft. Lauderdale Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff, chair of the House Finance and Tax Council, refused to call a vote on the bill in her committee.

South Florida House Democrat Ari Porch, who is sponsoring similar legislation this year, says the chances of passage have improved — partly because Bogdanoff has left the House for the Senate.

“I’m not hearing those obstacles this year,” Porch says. In reviewing what many of the other states have done to address the issue, Porch calls Florida’s failure to act “shameful,” adding, “we’ve done nothing… and we need to take that next step.”

GOP state Senator Evelyn Lynn is also offering a bill. She says it’s obvious why so many states have passed such laws: “It saves lives.”

There are slight variances between the two bills. Lynn’s would make texting while driving a primary offense, allowing officers to cite a motorist for that specific infraction. Porch’s bill would make it a secondary offense, meaning that the driver would have to have been pulled over initially for another reason.

Bogdanoff, who was elected to the state Senate in November, does not regret killing the House bill last year. Speaking with CL, she said that while she obviously doesn’t support texting while driving, she felt the legislation “was more about just accommodating a sound bite, and not really getting into the policy of prohibiting or discouraging people from doing distracting things in their car.”

And even though she was savaged by some critics for her opposition, Bogdanoff says that she had “a lot of people” telling her not to hear the vote. “We have sometimes put certain things in law that probably shouldn’t be put in law, but we do it because it’s hard to vote against it.”

Bogdanoff questions whether legislation banning texting while driving has had a significant impact anywhere in the country. Her critics call the question absurd, but one analyst does say that unless you ban cell phone usage of any kind while driving, problems will persist. New York Times technology reporter Matt Richtel, who won a Pulitzer for his 2009 reporting on the subject, recently told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that driving while texting or talking on your phone is the “most powerful manifestation of distraction. Science is finding that it’s riskier to talk on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, while driving than it is to talk to a passenger in your car.”

Cell phones are hardly the only distractions for drivers.

Alan Snel with the South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers says that as a bicyclist, he sees men driving while reading the newspaper and women in traffic applying makeup. But he also opposes texting while driving, considering it part of the overall culture of reckless drivers in Florida that imperils the safety of all road users.

Bogdanoff’s obstinance on the issue was tough to take for those who’ve read studies like the one from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which reported in 2009 that truckers who are texting are 23 times more likely to have a crash or near-crash event — or a University of Utah 2009 report that said drivers who text message are six times more likely to crash than drivers talking on a cell phone.

Last April, Kevin Blackwell, senior vice president of AAA Auto Club South in Tampa, said, “We are very disappointed that this lifesaving bill might not pass because of the personal opinion of one representative,” begging that she give the bill a fair hearing “or allow it to be withdrawn from her Council so it can be considered by the full House.”

But no dice.

Karen Morgan is manager of public policy for AAA Auto Club South. She says it’s too early to tell if the absence of Bogdanoff from that important House committee means the legislation is guaranteed passage in 2011. “We’re encouraged that some form of a bill — maybe a ban on novice drivers as least [happens]. I know several states at least have taken that approach and tried to chip away at it that way.”

Some states have banned texting for teenage drivers, about as modest a change in the law as you can get. AAA Auto Club South encourages people to use only hands-free phones in cars, but isn’t pushing for such legislation.

Ybor City-based House Democrat Betty Reed thinks that public sentiment is so strongly in favor of a texting-while-driving ban (a poll taken by the New York Times nationally in September of 2009 showed 90 percent support for such a ban), opposition like Bogdanoff’s might not do well with the voters.

“This seems to be the year that everybody is considering what the voters want, so this might be the year we get it passed,” Reed said.

Last week in the Polk County town of Davenport, the family of Heather Hurd gathered for an event that named a portion of U.S. 27 the Heather Hurd Memorial Highway. Three years ago, the 26-year-old woman was hit and killed by a truck driver who later admitted to authorities that he had been talking on a cell phone at the time.

That tragic event was hardly an anomaly. According to statistics produced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA), nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 and more than half a million were injured in crashes involving distracted or inattentive drivers.

Backed by those solemn statistics, Heather’s family fought to get a measure passed in their home state of Maryland. The bill, which bans the use of handheld cell phones in autos, made the state one of only eight in the country to have such a ban. (Drivers can still use cellphones under the law, but only with hands-free devices.)

A more moderate measure — banning texting while driving — is now the law in some 30 states. But a handful still have no sanctions at all restricting the use of cellphones — and Florida is one of those states. Several lawmakers say they hope to change that this spring.

But that’s what observers thought would happen in 2010.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.