TALLAHASSEE — Momentum is building for a measure that would ban text messaging while driving, but legislators are still ironing out just how far the proposed law should go.
After more than an hour of heated debate, a House committee unanimously pushed forward a bill Wednesday that stopped short of making texting while driving a primary offense. So a police officer would need another reason to stop a driver and write a citation.
Lawmakers acknowledged some compromise had softened the bill language, but supporters stressed that passing any law would be better than taking no action.
"When you are offered a ham sandwich, sometimes it is better to take the ham sandwich than wait for the steak that never comes," said Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, chairman of the Roads, Bridges and Ports Policy Committee.
The texting talk puts Florida at the center of a national debate about telecommunication devices and road safety. At least 19 states and the District of Columbia have passed bans on texting while driving in recent years.
Distractions caused by mobile devices contribute to 6,000 deaths each year on America's highways, according to the U.S. Transportation Department. More than 135 billion text messages were sent or received in a one-month period in the United States, an 80 percent increase over the rate in 2008, the department found.
Florida's proposed law would make texting while driving a secondary offense. The measure also would prohibit motorists from reading data on wireless devices while driving.
First-time violators could be fined $30 plus court costs. A second offense within five years would be a moving violation, costing the texting driver $60 plus court costs.
The bill, pushed by Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, initially proposed making texting while driving a more serious offense.
Holder, who has tried to pass similar legislation in the past without success, said he was comfortable with the new bill language.
"From what I am hearing, If we made this a primary offense, there would be so much opposition that the bill would never be heard again," he said. Other lawmakers have advised him that this version would be more amenable in the Senate, he said.
Still, some proponents said they wanted to see a stronger bill reach the House floor.
"The easiest thing for law enforcement is to be able to say it is illegal to hold a piece of (telecommunications) equipment in your hand," said Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami.
Police officers might not be able to differentiate between drivers dialing a telephone call or texting a message without a clearer idea of what to look for, said Rep. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.
"I don't know what they (the drivers) are going to take to court to prove they are not texting," she said.
Holder urged lawmakers to trust law enforcement officers to do their jobs.
"The intention of this bill is to save lives in Florida by prohibiting texting while driving so we can reduce deaths and accidents," he said. "The purpose of the bill is not to enact a law in order to pull someone over and write a citation."
More than a dozen similar bills have been pitched in the House and Senate this year, but Holder's measure has received the most support. That doesn't sit well with lawmakers pushing for broader enforcement.
"How many lives do we have to lose before they get that this is a very serious deal?" said Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, who vowed to fight for a stricter ban. "It ain't over until it is over."
Cristina Silva can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.