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House passes amended texting while driving bill

The House on Wednesday voted 110-6 to pass a bill to restrict texting while driving, but it still faces an uphill battle if it's going to become law.

On Tuesday, the House approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, which would allow cell phone records to be used as evidence only in the "event of a crash resulting in death or personal injury."

The question now is whether the Senate will approve the amended version. If the Senate rejects this amended version and makes changes, the bill (SB 52) would have to go back to the House to be approved and its chances of being heard again in the House and approved by the time session is over looks unlikely. Complicating the matter, the Democrats, angered over inaction on health insurance reform, have demanded that all bills be read in their entirety, which has slowed the process.

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The bill is sponsored by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Reps. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, and Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota. Detert has been trying to get a texting while driving law on the books for four years, Holder for five.

Oliva said he proposed the change to protect people's civil liberties, not to defeat the overall bill, which he voted for Wednesday, but the amendment sparked an emotional debate with backers saying adding the bill so late looks like an attempt to sink it.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, told the Florida Current Tuesday that the House amendment doesn't kill the bill, but indicated he doesn't like it

"I support Sen. Detert's good bill; I voted for it twice in committee last year, I voted for it on the floor this year," Gaetz said. "I hope we would have an opportunity to ask our colleagues in the House have another look at it."

He added, "I think the bill, as we sent it from the Senate, is a good bill."

Asked about what would happen if the Senate made changes in the bill and it came back to the House, Oliva said that with the bills being read in full "We may run out of time." Would he vote on a bill without his amendment? "I would like to see that mendment on this. ... I, like everyone else, want to see the end of children texting and getting hurt and killed in automobiles but not at the expense of our civil liberties. " Oliva said his amendment doesn't "touch the core of the legislation."

Calling texting while driving an epidemic, Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, said that "hopefully this amendment will not affect what's going to happen in this bill … This bill is going to make our roads safer and we need it desperately."

Why is it needed, Holder asked? "If you text while you drive you're 23 times more likely to have an accident; it's the same as driving blind for five seconds at a time, traveling the distance of a football field; it's the same as drinking four beers very quickly and getting behind the wheel and it's six times more likely to cause an accident than driving while you're intoxicated." He said it was also the number one cause of distracted driving for teen drivers.Holder said Tuesday that a prime purpose of the bill is to give parents and driving education teachers the ability to tell new drivers that texting is illegal in Florida, which is now one of five states

The proposal makes texting while driving a secondary offense. That means a motorist would have to commit another violation, such as careless driving, in order to be pulled over. Once stopped, a driver could receive two tickets, one for the infraction and one for texting.

The fine would be $30 for a first-time texting offense, $60 if it occurs again within five years, with more points added if the violation is in a school zone. Text­ing would be allowed in hands-off high-tech cars and when a car is stopped at a red light or in a traffic jam.

On Tuesday, Detert said "It's a very simple bill. It should have simply passed."

Several representatives thanked House Speaker Will Weatherford, who voted for the bill, to allow it to have a shot. In the past, leadership had kept the bill from being heard.