TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers are once again pushing to make Florida's traffic laws stricter, including forbidding drivers from talking on cell phones, letting police pull over motorists who aren't buckled up, and legalizing cameras that catch red light runners.
But imposing new driving restrictions is a tall order in the Legislature, which follows a live-and-let-live philosophy when it comes to the rules of the road.
This time, however, key legislators are leaning toward at least one major change: banning cell phones for drivers under 18 and outlawing text messaging for all motorists. This is a growing trend among states.
The fate of all these bills rests largely on the wishes of state Sen. Carey Baker, a conservative gun store owner from Central Florida. An Iraq war veteran who has statewide political aspirations, Baker chairs the Senate's Transportation Committee and has wide latitude to decide which transportation bills get heard and which get ignored, effectively killing them.
Baker, R-Eustis, favors some cell phone restrictions and has softened his opposition to red-light cameras. Despite intense criticism, he's set against stricter seat belt enforcement.
Teen drivers feel unfairly singled out when government officials talk about taking their cell phones away. But those who favor such a law point to studies showing the youngest drivers have the highest crash rates.
"They're inexperienced drivers. They need to be concentrating on actually driving," Baker said, adding that text messaging should be banned for all motorists. "If your hands are off the wheel and your eyes are off the road, you're a danger to others."
Other states also are taking this stance. Six states forbid all talking on handheld cell phones while driving, while another 17 target only younger drivers. Only two states specifically outlaw text messaging while driving, but 21 more are considering it this year.
"A lot of the legislation being considered is focusing on younger drivers," said Matt Sundeen, a transportation analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "And although a texting ban covers all drivers, clearly, anybody who's had a teenager in their house knows that's targeted toward younger drivers as well."
Many lawmakers sound ready for a teen cell phone ban.
"Years ago, if an idea like that was brought up, it was squelched almost immediately," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "Times have changed now."
Florida drivers can't be cited for a seat belt violation unless they get pulled over for another infraction. Bills in the House and Senate would change that. Safety advocates say seat belt usage is declining, and the fear of being ticketed would reverse that.
"Bottom line, it'll save about 200 lives a year, and about 2,700 serious injuries," said Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, sponsor of the House bill.
Florida would join 26 other states with similar laws. West-central Florida lawmakers such as Sens. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, and Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, support the idea.
But it appears unlikely to survive because Baker is against it.
Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, sponsor of the Senate bill, said it's wrong and insensitive for Baker to single-handedly block a bill with support from doctors, public safety groups and crash victims' families. Baker, who's running for state agriculture commissioner in a crowded field in 2010, said, "I just have a philosophical disagreement with allowing law enforcement officers to stop someone who is doing nothing otherwise wrong."
Red light cameras
Will lawmakers clear the way for more red light cameras in Florida? Two Bradenton Republicans have filed bills to do that.
Cities in two dozen states use cameras to ticket drivers who run red lights. But Florida bans the devices from its rights-of-way on state roads, which include many major thoroughfares. A few places, including Hillsborough County, are sticking the cameras on private property near intersections, but other cities are waiting for a change in the law.
Last week, Baker's committee took the Senate bill and reduced the fines that cities had hoped to collect — from $125 to $60 for the first three violations. That has some cities questioning whether they could afford the cameras.
Gov. Charlie Crist wants rules for the cameras to be consistent: "I think that some uniformity might be a little bit easier on citizens throughout the state. I mean, they travel around the state a lot."
In Tallahassee, sparring over driving laws is an annual tug of war pitting public safety against government intrusion. Some lawmakers also want to make it illegal to drive slowly in the passing lane; prohibit kids from riding in pickup beds; and limit the number of passengers in teens' cars.
Most of those bills are likely to die, but they'll be back next year.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com.