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.
Im not hearing those obstacles this year, Porch says. In reviewing what many of the other states have done to address the issue, Porch calls Floridas failure to act shameful, adding, weve done nothing
and we need to take that next step.
GOP state Senator Evelyn Lynn is also offering a bill. She says its obvious why so many states have passed such laws: It saves lives.
There are slight variances between the two bills. Lynns would make texting while driving a primary offense, allowing officers to cite a motorist for that specific infraction. Porchs 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 doesnt 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 shouldnt be put in law, but we do it because its 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 Airs Terry Gross that driving while texting or talking on your phone is the most powerful manifestation of distraction. Science is finding that its 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.
Bogdanoffs obstinance on the issue was tough to take for those whove 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 its too early to tell if the absence of Bogdanoff from that important House committee means the legislation is guaranteed passage in 2011. Were 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 isnt 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 Bogdanoffs 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.