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Florida lawmakers see no chance of cellphone driving ban

No way will Florida lawmakers ban the use of cellphones while driving, says state Sen. Jack Latvala.

"You know the NRA saying that if they want my gun they'll pry it from my cold dead hands? That's what I think about banning cellphones and driving," said Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "Absolutely no chance."

He made the comments Wednesday while driving and talking on his cellphone.

The National Transportation Safety Board this week recommended that states ban the non-emergency use of cellphones and other electronic devices by drivers, blaming a fatal Missouri crash in 2010 on a driver distracted by texting.

"Wow, that's harsh," said Paul Sullivan, 35, of St. Petersburg, who owns a cleaning business.

Sullivan said he avoids texting while driving but said making phone calls from behind the wheel is almost inevitable.

Yet Sullivan and another St. Petersburg resident, Damien Olivier, 28, acknowledge the dangers, and irritation, of cellphone use while driving.

There's the driver at the bank dawdling on the phone instead of finishing business. The one holding up other cars in a parking lot. The driver drifting into another lane on the interstate.

Yet people keep texting, calling and surfing the web on their mobile phones. At Fourth Street N and Ninth Avenue at midday Wednesday, one driver after another was seen with a phone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other.

"Usually, I feel like I'm in control of the car," Olivier said. "I have the ability to do it. … I don't feel like I'm swaying, causing delays for people."

Electronic devices caused 2,218 crashes in Florida this year through October, state records show. Another 685 were related to DVDs and similar devices. Texting contributed to 145 crashes. That adds up to 1.8 percent of all crashes, though it may underestimate the problem because police rely on drivers to admit they were using a cellphone.

Florida is one of 15 states that does not ban texting while driving, and the Republican-controlled Legislature has shown little interest in changing that.

In recent years, bills banning or restricting text messaging while driving were killed by lawmakers, many of whom use mobile phones while driving. Latvala, for example, said he returns most phone messages while driving.

While Latvala's committee recently voted for a texting ban, the House hasn't scheduled a hearing.

State Rep. John Legg, a member of the House leadership, said more lawmakers support a ban on texting while driving, which he called the equivalent of "piloting a missile."

But Legg, who sponsored a limited texting ban in 2009, said concerns over enforcement have dampened support. He agrees with Latvala that the chances of a cellphone ban are slim.

"I would not call Latvala a bastion of conservative ideas, so if he's saying that, that speaks to a number of folks," said Legg, R-Port Richey.

For example, state Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is leading a major House transportation bill and doesn't want it to include an outright ban. He wondered how it could be enforced in an age of Bluetooth and hands-free devices.

"It's definitely big government overreaching, it's definitely nanny state," Brandes said.

Lawmakers pointed out that the NTSB recommendation would not ban other behavior that distracts drivers, such as applying makeup or eating.

"It's another attempt by the Obama administration to control our lives," Latvala said. "I think it's overblown. There are laws on the books against careless driving."

Even a pro-Obama Democrat said the NTSB recommendation goes too far. State Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, who supports the texting ban, said the NTSB probably used scientific reasons to back up the decision — but that's not enough.

"This a stretch that will not play in Florida," Joyner said. "People will not give up their phone while driving. The texting is a different thing."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes

Florida lawmakers see no chance of cellphone driving ban 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 10:22pm]
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