A late amendment could derail a bill banning texting while driving for another year, supporters fear.
The amendment, which would allow cellphone records to be used as evidence only in the "event of a crash resulting in death or personal injury," was tacked onto the texting-while-driving ban Tuesday in the House.
Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, proposed the change to protect people's civil liberties, not to defeat the overall bill, he said.
But its inclusion in the broader texting bill complicates matters.
Part process. Part politics.
While the House could pass the amended bill as early as today, it now must return to the Senate. The back-and-forth is typical in the final days of session, but it also increases the chances that an agreement between the two chambers will not be reached.
The House may be using the amendment as a way to quietly defeat the bill. Or House leaders could be holding up the measure as a chip in other bill negotiations with the Senate.
Matters were certainly made worse Tuesday when Democrats, angered over inaction on health insurance reform, demanded that all bills be read in their entirety.
The original texting-while-driving bill (SB 52) passed the Senate 36-0. Had House members approved the bill without the amendment, it would have headed straight to Gov. Rick Scott. Scott has not taken a position on the bill.
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.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Reps. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, and Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota.
Detert watched from the back of the House chamber Tuesday as Republicans voted 73-46 to amend her bill. She called the timing "suspicious," noting that the bill has been awaiting action in the House for two weeks.
"It's a very simple bill," Detert said. "It should have simply passed."
The House has proved a roadblock to approving texting-while-driving legislation in the past, largely because of the opposition of former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. With Cannon out of office, supporters expected an easier time.
Republicans said the amendment was necessary to limit when police could use cellphone records against a driver, not to derail the bill.
"We see amendments every day and no one is accusing anyone else of being scheming or being dishonest," said Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral.
But Rep. Dave Kerner, a Lake Worth Democrat and former police officer, said the amendment was unnecessary. "Police will not be subpoenaing your records" for a traffic ticket, he said.
Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have texting-while-driving bans for all drivers.
The proposed Florida ban is supported by AT&T, the AARP, AAA, trial lawyers, businesses and state law enforcement groups.
According to a preliminary report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were 256,443 reported crashes in 2012. In 4,841 of those crashes, a driver had been texting or otherwise using an "electronic communication device" while driving.
A 2010 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute, which looks at insurance claims, said crashes didn't go down in states that banned texting by drivers, but rather found reported collisions went up slightly.
The researchers guessed that bans are making a bad situation worse by causing drivers, knowing it's illegal, to move their phones down and out of sight when they text. That takes their eyes even further away from the road.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.