Finally in Florida, common sense looks likely to prevail.
The Senate has unanimously approved a ban on texting while driving. House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel has said he will let the House vote on a ban — bucking the precedents of two predecessors. And Gov. Rick Scott has promised to sign a texting-while-driving ban that just two years ago several Republican leaders called an infringement on personal freedom. Most importantly, Florida roads are about to get safer.
Under the Senate bill, texting while driving will be a secondary violation, which means a motorist would have to be stopped for some other traffic offense in order to be cited. Penalties would call for a $30 fine for a first-time texting offense. Subsequent offenses within five years would incur a $60 fine, plus three points against a driver's record. More points could be added if the violation occurs within a school zone or in connection with another serious offense. And there are reasonable exceptions: Texting would be allowed when a car is stopped or in cars equipped with hands-free technology.
It's been a long road for perennial advocates such as Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, who didn't need the mounting evidence compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board to know that texting drivers can be as dangerous as those under the influence of alcohol. In 2011, some 2,218 easily avoidable crashes involved some form of distracted driving in Florida, including 145 traffic mishaps, some of them fatal, that were caused by texting drivers.
Finally, the tide has shifted. The telecommunications industry — perhaps because it is no longer so dependent on per-text charges — has stopped fighting texting-while-driving bans, which now are in effect in some form in 45 states. And state lawmakers — including Pinellas' own Sens. Jack Latvala and Jeff Brandes — are on board after being vocally opposed just two years ago on the dubious grounds that a driver's right to use a mobile device supersedes everyone else's right to travel safely.
If the governor and the Legislature follow through, Florida's roads finally should be a bit safer.