Driving Change: Too little too late?

Workshop by a House Committee goes in the right direction, just not in time

By Matt Austin - Anchor, Donovan Myrie - Special Projects Producer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - News 6 has been pushing to get results for the past seven months by putting pressure on lawmakers to change Florida's ineffective driving and texting law. The persistence has paid off and political leaders are finally listening.

Just not in time.

For the immediate future, Floridians will be able to continue to text while driving and police officers won’t be able to do much about it. Politicians attempted to change the law this session: four anti-texting bills were introduced for 2017, but only one, Senate Bill 144, got any traction.

Of the four committees assigned to hear the bill and vote yay or nay, SB 144 only made it through two of them. On the House side, things were even worse: neither of the two bills were heard by any committees.

The House Government Accountability Committee held a workshop Monday inviting law enforcement, advocates, and the public for input on changing Florida’s texting and driving law. The common theme from most of the people submitting testimony: push the law from a secondary offense to a primary offense. 

“The theory of general deterrent states that when a driver‘s discomfort or concern for being stopped outweighs the desire to disobey the law then they comply with the law,” said former Winter Park Police Chief Brett Railey. “The law that we currently have on the books is toothless and an officer cannot pro-actively take action to stop someone texting and driving. It always has to be re-active after they’ve already done their damage.” 

Though the Committee is powerless for the short-term to push forward any legislation before the session ends in May, members said they were hopeful.

“I think that this workshop today is a good sign that the leadership is interested in tackling this issue,” said freshman Rep.Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando.) 

But Smith added “There’s not really any time for us to be able to get this done.”

Keyna Cory, with the FL Dnt Txt + Drive Coalition, told lawmakers “Between the AAA and AARP, we have millions of people that are asking you to please make a change in the law. Move our texting while driving from a secondary to a primary offense.”

Cory’s group represents about forty organizations who said they think it’s time to change the law.

Speaking in support of the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Department, Chief Mark Brown of the Florida Highway Patrol said “Distracted driving causes traffic crashes, regardless of what they’re doing.” Brown added “Whether they’re trying to get directions somewhere while they’re operating a motor vehicle, traveling down the highway, it’s a distraction. It takes away their thoughts.”

Demetrius Branca, whose son Anthony was killed by a distracted driver while riding his motorcycle in November of 2014, told the Committee “there are people dying in our streets every day.”

After the meeting, he told News 6 that in his opinion, getting behind the wheel of your car is both a responsibility and a privilege.

“Anytime that you pick up your phone, and look at your phone while you are driving a moving vehicle, what you’re essentially saying is that what’s happening on your phone is more important than the lives of the people in the car with you," Branca said. "And I would really ask people ‘is that what you really want to say?’”

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