Fla. Bill to Ban Cell Phone Use While Driving Placed on Hold

April 11, 2007

Motorists will be able to continue to ask for directions, tell their spouse what time they’ll be home, or just chatter aimlessly on their cell phone while driving in Florida.

A measure that would have made it against the law to talk on a cell phone or send text messages while driving was put on hold in the state Senate this week. A return call for the bill isn’t likely this year.

The measure was on a Senate committee’s agenda, but the panel didn’t take a vote because there’s no companion measure in the House, making it nearly impossible to get the proposal through the Legislature this year.

The bill (SB 2372) is opposed by some phone companies who argue that few crashes are caused by distracted drivers, and those that are may be caused by another distracting behavior, such as eating, changing a CD or putting on makeup.

“We think current driving laws give our law enforcement officers a lot of leeway,” to ticket drivers who are being careless, said Doug Mannheimer, a lobbyist for Sprint.

Several members of the Senate Transportation Committee, including its chairman, Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, said they had been presented conflicting data on how distracting using a cell phone is. Because of that, they said it didn’t make sense to vote on a bill in committee that wasn’t going to pass the full Legislature anyway.

Using a handsfree device would have still been allowed under the bill.

The Legislature has considered cell phone restrictions in the past — but this year’s measure was different because it also would have prohibited sending text messages.

Tallahassee resident Tavares Barrett, 31, said he sometimes sends text messages from his car. Now he’ll be able to continue without worrying about hiding it from the police.

“I only do it at red lights,” Barrett said. “If someone does text message me while I’m driving, I may send a one word response: ‘Are you coming to the party? Yes. Are you running late? No.”’

Barrett said he understands the thinking behind such bans, but has seen other drivers doing things just as distracting, such as shaving or applying makeup.

A survey by Verizon Wireless of its customers last year found that people in Miami said they used cell phones more than people in any other American city, making or receiving an average of almost 300 calls a month.

Before it decided not to vote, the committee heard from several motorcyclists who said their lives are already endangered by careless car drivers — and that they frequently see clueless drivers using phones and not watching where they’re going.

“People are getting killed every day,” said Robert Conroy, a motorcycle rider who said he’s dodged distracted drivers. “There is no freedom or right to use a cell phone and put another person at risk.”

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, would have made the offense a secondary one, which means that officers wouldn’t be able to pull drivers over just for using a cell phone. But if the driver could have been cited if pulled over for something else and found to have been using the cell phone.

Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, said she would push for legislative staff to study the cell phone issue before next year’s legislative session, hoping for a clearer picture of the dangers of the practice.

No states completely ban cell phone use while driving, but four states — California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York — and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers from using cell phones without a handsfree device while they’re driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Florida passed a measure in 2002 that prohibits local governments from enforcing local cell phone bans. The argument at the time was that there should be one statewide law.

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