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Florida lawmakers seek new rules for teen drivers

Jolie Stuart-Davis, 15, uses the driving simulator last week at Bloomingdale High School in Valrico as Matt Sellars, 16, watches. Teachers make them maneuver through traffic while talking on a phone and dealing with other distractions.

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times

Jolie Stuart-Davis, 15, uses the driving simulator last week at Bloomingdale High School in Valrico as Matt Sellars, 16, watches. Teachers make them maneuver through traffic while talking on a phone and dealing with other distractions.

As legislators consider cracking down on teenage drivers in the name of safety, local 16-year-olds sitting in driver's ed classrooms have their own opinions.

State lawmakers are talking about forbidding drivers under 18 from talking on cell phones while behind the wheel. They also could make driver's education mandatory, the way it used to be in Florida.

Teens argue that if the state is going down that road, why not go ahead and ban cell phones for all drivers, not just young ones?

Then they answer their own question: "They won't take it away from the adults because they all do it themselves," said Chris Conradi, a 16-year-old sophomore at Bloomingdale High School near Brandon.

A blanket ban on cell phones is unlikely to happen. And as lawmakers sprint into the final two weeks of the session, it remains to be seen if those other ideas — mandating driver's ed and targeting young drivers' phones — will actually become laws.

But all this is happening as a new study by AAA shows Florida's teen drivers have the third-worst crash record in the nation. And traffic accidents remain the No. 1 cause of death for teens.

Cell phones

A powerful state lawmaker is pushing a cell phone ban for 15- to 17-year-old drivers. That's why the idea, which has gotten nowhere in previous years, has more momentum now. The bill (SB 504) also would forbid text messaging by drivers of any age.

Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has shepherded his bill through two committees despite resistance from cell phone companies.

Because the bill bans phones "while operating" a vehicle, lobbyists have questioned if it would apply to people sitting in an unmoving car.

"It needs to be a moving violation. If you've pulled off to the side of the road with the air conditioning going, you're 'operating' a motor vehicle," said David Ramba, lobbyist for the Florida Telecommunications Industry Association. "It would cause us problems, trying to explain to our customers what's legal."

Baker is making changes to his bill. But a companion bill in the House (HB 193) was referred to three committees where it never got scheduled for a hearing — not a good sign for its survival.

The House bill's sponsor, Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, insisted, "It's still very alive."

He said the bill could get a floor vote because it's supposed to be heard this week in the House's Economic Expansion and Infrastructure Council.

Other lawmakers question why 18 should be used as a cutoff age. Legg, whose 15- and 17-year-old children have started driving, said it's because younger motorists are inexperienced.

"We're putting minors behind the wheel of a 2,000- to 3,000-pound object while they're distracted," he said.

With studies showing that teens are twice as likely as adults to crash, 23 other states have taken legislative action. Six states ban all talking on handheld cell phones while driving; 17 target only younger drivers. Only two outlaw text messaging while driving, but 21 more are considering it.

Driver's education

In the driver's ed classroom at Bloomingdale High, teachers Ed Osteen and K.B. Scull preach to 15- and 16-year-olds about avoiding distractions.

"Driving is your job. It's your job to pay attention," Osteen says.

Students take turns behind the wheel of a simulator. To disrupt their concentration, the teachers make them maneuver through traffic while talking on a phone and compiling a grocery list, or while counting backward from 100 by sevens. Everyone in the classroom can see the virtual car swerve back and forth.

"A picture's worth a thousand words," Osteen said. Students also practice on a driving range and get a little time in real traffic.

Every public high school in the Tampa Bay area offers driver's ed as an elective class, and Pinellas County is about to get its first simulators, which will go to Dixie Hollins and Dunedin high schools.

Experts, however, say such programs are in decline around the state and nationwide, squeezed out by high-pressure academics and rising costs. Some districts, including Manatee and Sarasota counties, have dropped their cars and have only classroom instruction.

Students at Tampa's Chamberlain High School are proposing a law requiring teens to pass a driver's education course, either through a public school or a commercial driving academy, before they get a license.

Chamberlain sophomore T.J. Mouse's idea won an annual "Ought to be a Law" contest sponsored by Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, that challenges students to draft bills they think should be enacted as laws. The two lawmakers sponsor the winning bill, and students travel to Tallahassee to lobby for it.

"You may grow up and never have to do algebra or calculus ever again," Mouse said, "but you will drive for the rest of our life."

The bills (HB 1299 and SB 2678) have sailed through committees but face a time crunch as the session winds down. Another potential roadblock: They would require schools to offer behind-the-wheel training or simulators, which would be costly for places that don't do it now.

"Anything that is perceived as adding an extra burden on schools or anything else is being viewed very carefully," said Hills­borough schools administrator Dennis Holt, who supports the idea. He estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the county's students take driver's ed.

The bill's sponsors say counties have the option of adding a $3 to $5 surcharge to traffic tickets to pay for such programs, but some don't. They also note that 37 states mandate driver's education.

"That's one of those statistics where you want Florida to be in the majority," said Amber Smith, one of Ambler's legislative aides.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

>>FAST FACTS

The proposals

Cell phones: Forbids drivers under 18 from using cell phones while behind the wheel. Bans text messaging while driving for all ages.

Driver's ed: Requires teens to pass a driver's education course to get a license, either through a public school or a driving academy.

Florida lawmakers seek new rules for teen drivers 04/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 9:44am]
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