Local News

Texting while driving ban accelerates in Legislature

SEBRING - John Griffin hopes Florida finally bans texting while driving and saves lives. So does LaTosha Nichole Harnage. “I hope they pass this law because people are ignorant thinking they can do two things at one time,” she wrote on Highlands Today’s Facebook page. And this may be the year it finally happens.
After passing unanimously in the Senate, the House is scheduled to vote on the bill that would make texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning a driver would have to first commit another violation to be pulled over, such as speeding. The motorist would then receive two tickets -- one for the infraction and one for texting. The Florida Senate approved SB 52 recently. Sen. Denise Grimsley, who supported it, said it strikes “a balance between personal responsibility and safety concerns.” “While I was concerned about unintended consequences, several are addressed by the legislation,” she said in an email. SB 52 makes texting, e-mailing and instant messaging on any handheld device illegal while driving. It does not apply if a vehicle “that is stationary is not being operated” and excludes emergency vehicle drivers, law enforcement or fire and medical services officials in the course of their duties. It also exempts those reporting an emergency, criminal or suspicious activity to law enforcement, or those who receive messages that are related to the “navigation” or “operation” of the vehicle, along with traffic or weather alerts. The fine would be $30 for a first-time offense; it would double should it occur again within five years and three points would be assessed against a motorist’s driver’s license. Local State Rep. Cary Pigman said in an e-mail he will support the bill when it comes for a House floor vote, although it’s not certain when that will happen. His legislative assistant Bryan E. Mielke said it could come up next week. “Driving while distracted for any of a variety of reasons is a significant problem, often resulting in traffic collisions and injuries,” Pigman said. He feels more needs to be done to recognize the dangers of all distracted driving and to educate “drivers at the youngest ages” and “hopefully change their behavior.” “But this is an important step in the right direction,” he added. To become law, Gov. Rick Scott would have to sign the bill once the House approves it. This is the first time representatives reportedly have had the chance to vote on the measure. Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who has sponsored the bill for four years, credits House Speaker Will Weatherford for allowing the bill to be heard in the House, the Miami Herald reports. Florida is the only one of five states that has no restrictions on texting behind the wheel, Detert said. Talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving is banned in 10 states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, according to the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety. Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 39 states and the District of Columbia, the institute reports. In addition, novice drivers are banned from texting in six states (Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas) and school bus drivers are banned from text messaging in three states (Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas). While Cora Schwingel agrees with the law, she argues that drinking under the influence of alcohol also is illegal. “Has it stopped people from doing it?” she questions on Highlands Today’s Facebook page while Wes Linscott said it may be difficult to enforce, “but if it helps to save some lives, it is worth it. Hope the House passes it and the governor signs it.”