The Senate Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Tuesday approved a bill by Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry that would institute a statewide ban on texting while driving, but not before they and members of the public labelled it as merely the first step toward a hands-free Florida.
SB 90 and its House counterpart, HB 121, were a focus at the Capitol today, with countless families who had lost loved ones heading to Tallahassee to make it known that the law on the books is too limp-wristed and that its time to change it.
In addition to SB 90 going before its first committee, the Florida Sheriffs Association, Property Casualty Insurers Association of America and texting ban advocacy group FL DNT TXT N DRV Coalition and were among the groups to issue statements today backing a texting ban.
Lawmakers in 2013 considered it a win after they passed a law to make texting while driving a “secondary offense” that could be tacked on to other moving violations such as speeding, but the measure put forward this year would allow police to pull over texting motorists even if they aren’t breaking another rule of the road.
All Senators on the committee agreed in principle, though there was no clear consensus on just how far the state should go with a ban.
“We all know texting is bad – it’s bad – there’s no way around it,” said committee chair and Jacksonville Republican Sen. Aaron Bean. “It’s just how do we get it done, that’s the question.”
For Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young and Forth Worth Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens, as well as many of 31 speakers who showed up to support the bill, the way forward is a full-on phone ban, which they and many advocacy groups say would save the most lives and create the least amount of work for law enforcement officers.
“What about sending an email, would that be okay? What about looking through a spotify playlist to choose a song? Would that be okay?” Young asked Perry, along with whether the bill covered Norelco shavers, paperback novels and many other sources of distraction.
“Using a battery-powered curling iron – you ever seen that? I have,” Young said.
Perry said while other activities take eyes off the road, that if he and Young stepped outside they could likely spot two or three texters among the first 10 cars driving by, but might never see a reader or Netflix-watcher behind the wheel.
Clemens said research he looked over shows a simple texting ban might be a wash when it comes to saving lives, but said that hands-free states have seen a drastic reduction in not only fatalities, but injuries and accidents.
The Senate Democratic Leader also wanted the bill to get along with a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the warrantless search and seizure of the digital contents of a cell phone is unconstitutional.
Making the bill jibe with that decision is required if police need to prove someone is texting, Clemens said, while under a hands-free law it wouldn’t matter what a motorist was doing on their phone.
“This is decided law. You can’t look at someone’s cell phone without a warrant or without their permission,” he said of the Riley v. California decision, later adding that
“the bill as its structured without the amendment makes it nearly impossible for an officer to tell whether you’re texting, or looking at your iTunes playlist.”
Perry again offered to watch passing cars with his Senate colleague.
“You and I could go out there and be able to tell the difference between someone texting or doing something different with multiple keystrokes,” he said.
Clemens tried to force those changes with a pair of late-filed amendments, both of which Perry deemed “unfriendly,” and while the hands-free strike-all failed, Clemens’ fix to require police inform drivers that they have a right to decline a phone search passed 5-3.
When public comment opened for the amended bill, most of the lobby corps backing the ban deferred to give the flood of mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and cousins in the room time to share their stories of how distracted driving had ended the lives of loved ones.
The first of the speakers were Key Biscayne couple Rick and Debbie Wanninkhof, who made the nearly 500-mile drive to Tallahassee to tell the story of their son, Patrick, who was killed by a distracted driver at age 25.
“As you can see behind us, we are not alone,” said Rick Wanninkhof after recounting the death of his son. “As lawmakers we ask you to please protect everyone to the best of your ability. SB 90 will save lives.”
“If we saved just one life, wouldn’t it be worth it?” asked Debbie Wanninkhof, holding in her tears until her speaking time was up.
She was one of the few mothers who could. Young had to step away from her desk to comfort the next mother with a tissue and a shoulder as she recounted the death of her son, who had had been a classmate of Young’s child and was a service member stationed aboard the USS Florida with eyes on an officer commission in the U.S. Navy before distracted driving cut his life short.
In the end, lawmakers passed the bill with the only no-vote on the panel coming from Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, who didn’t disagree that a ban should be made law, but said Perry’s bill didn’t go far enough toward solving the problem.
And Perry said that while his bill isn’t perfect, it’s a starting point.
“My goal is that that crowd will not get bigger,” he said turning to look at the parents in the room. “Our goal is to make that crowd smaller.”