TALLAHASSEE — An overwhelming majority of Florida voters — 71 percent — support prohibiting motorists from text messaging while driving, according to a new Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 Poll.
Florida is one of only 15 states without some kind of ban. A measure to enforce one is being considered by the Legislature during the current session, but lawmakers say it has a dim chance of passing. Many Republicans, including House Speaker Dean Cannon, say it would infringe on personal liberty and be difficult to enforce.
But the poll shows strong support statewide for a ban, with 27 percent opposing and 2 percent undecided.
"If I'm a legislator, this is a no-brainer for me to vote for," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll. "There's been very, very good public relations done nationwide, and even in Florida, that this is dangerous to do, and that's obviously getting through."
Across demographic groups, there was little disagreement:
• Voters in southwest Florida seem most willing to embrace such a restriction, with 78 percent in support. The Tampa Bay region came in second at 72 percent favorable.
• Democrats, at 78 percent, favor a proposal more than Republicans and independents, with both groups at 66 percent.
• Black voters polled at 81 percent in support, 11 percentage points higher than white voters and 13 points above Hispanics.
• At 74 percent, women support the idea more than men by a margin of 5 percentage points.
• At 62 percent, voters between the ages of 18 and 34 polled 9 percentage points below the statewide average in support of a ban. Support was much higher among adults 35 to 64, at 70 percent. Voters over 65, however, polled 6 points above the average at 77 percent.
The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the general election — was conducted Jan. 24-26 for the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon, a nonpartisan, Jacksonville-based company. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
Electronic devices caused 2,218 crashes in Florida in 2011 through October, state records show, with texting contributing to 145 crashes. The percentage is low, but police say it's probably higher because culpable drivers may not admit they were using a cellphone.
In December, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called on Congress to enact a national ban against texting while driving. That was modest compared to a subsequent recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board that states ban the non-emergency use of cell phones and other electronic devices by drivers — a notion flatly rejected by Florida lawmakers.
Critics point to studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by car insurance companies to research ways to reduce crashes, that show traffic safety has not improved in states with bans. They also suggest bans are difficult to enforce; what if the driver is reading a message, or searching for a number? Doesn't that also take eyes off the road?
The state Senate is poised to pass a ban on texting while driving this session that would penalize the practice as a secondary offense. It's Sen. Nancy Detert's third time sponsoring the legislation.
Under SB 416, police could only cite a motorist for texting behind the wheel if it occurred on top of a primary offense, such as speeding, running a red light or causing a crash. Detert says her bill will still allow motorists to compose text messages or emails at a red light, use GPS or dial a number while driving.
The first violation would come with a $30 fine and be categorized as a nonmoving violation. A second violation within five years would be upgraded as a moving violation and a $60 fine. Six points would be added if the use of a wireless communications device results in a crash.
Further, motorists could face two points on their drivers' licenses for violating the ban in a school zone. Again, it would have to be in conjunction with another moving violation.
The proposal awaits another Senate hearing before heading for a floor vote. Just two senators have voted against it so far.
But in the House, the measure is stalled.
"Look, I think a lot of our members have concerns about both the remedy and the structure of any bill that regulates individual behavior," Cannon said. "I've got personal liberties concerns."
Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, sponsor of HB 299, can't persuade a colleague to give the proposal its first hearing. Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, House Transportation and Highway Safety Subcommittee chairman, wouldn't say the proposal is dead, but he's "not very optimistic."
"There are bad things that occur all over this world," Drake said, "and the government will never be able to solve all those behaviors."
Still, the poll shows Republican lawmakers wary of passing a ban are "not necessarily in tune with their voters," Coker said.
Take Barbara Updegraff, 80, a Republican retiree who lives in Palm Harbor and participated in the poll.
"You want to text? Pull off the road and text if it's that important," she said in an interview. "When my cell phone rings and I'm driving, I don't answer it because I know they'll leave me a number if it's important."
Times/Herald staff writer Brittany Davis contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at email@example.com.