Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Ban on texting while driving in Florida closer to reality

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers on Wednesday got one step closer to a statewide ban on texting while driving.

The House Economics Affair committee cleared a bill (HB 13) by a 16-1 vote that would make texting while driving a secondary offense. That means police have to first stop drivers for another offense, such as speeding.

A first violation is a $30 fine, plus court costs. A second or subsequent violation within five years adds three points to the driver's license and a $60 fine. If texting causes a crash, that's six points. Points can lead to increased insurance rates. There are additional penalties for driving while texting in a school zone.

Texting while driving is "equivalent to drinking four beers very quickly and getting behind the wheel of a car," said Rep. Doug Holder, the Venice Republican sponsoring the bill. "We're losing people every single day because they're texting while driving and they're distracted while driving."

The House bill next goes to the floor. A companion bill (SB 52) also is moving toward the full Senate. Efforts to pass a ban have stalled for years in the face of Republican opposition based on concerns about government intrusion into people's lives.

The ban includes typing a text or reading a text while driving. It includes tablet computers as well as mobile phones, but excludes using a "talk-to-text" feature. And it allows texting while stopped at a red light.

Committee chair Jimmy Patronis was the only vote against. The Panama City Republican said he continued to have worries that the ban was overly intrusive.

Others on the panel raised related concerns, saying it may be difficult to prove that a driver wasn't texting. The bill allows the use of phone records in defense against a ticket, for instance. But some phone companies' records don't differentiate between manual texting and talk-to-text messaging.

The ban is supported by AT&T, the AARP, AAA, trial lawyers, businesses and state law enforcement groups.

According to a preliminary report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were 256,443 reported crashes in 2012. In 4,841 of those crashes, a driver had been texting or otherwise using an "electronic communication device" while driving.

Drivers who text 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 texting-while-driving bans for all drivers.

But 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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