MIAMI – At the start of Memorial Day Weekend, the office of Gov. Rick Scott made it official: Florida residents and visitors alike will have just one final long holiday weekend in which they can legally send text messages while behind the wheel of a car.
The governor’s office announced that on Tuesday, May 28, Scott would travel to Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School in Miami, where the governor would hold a press conference to sign a bill passed by the Florida Legislature that bans texting while driving.
Known often as Distracted Driving laws, Florida’s new measure puts the Sunshine State in solid company. Washington was the first state to pass a texting ban in 2007, and was joined by 40 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the years since. Those states and Florida now ban text messaging for all drivers.
For most, the bans are a primary enforcement offense, meaning highway law enforcement patrols can pull over a motorist simply for texting while driving.
In Florida, though, the law states that police can’t pull a motorist over for texting while driving, and that it’s a secondary offense.
In Florida, it would be a nonmoving violation, with a fine of $30.
The Florida law prohibits a driver from manually typing or entering multiple letters, numbers, symbols or other characters into a wireless communications device while operating a motor vehicle. This includes text messaging, emailing and instant messaging through smart phones.
In announcing his support for the measure, Scott issued a statement noting that, “As a father and a grandfather, texting while driving is something that concerns me when my loved ones are on the road.”
Scott said he also wanted to get the bill signed before the busy summer driving season begins.
“The 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are known as the deadliest days on the road for teenagers,” the governor said. “We must do everything we can at the state level to keep our teenagers and everyone on our roads safe. I cannot think of a better time to officially sign this bill into law.”
The measure was co-sponsored Sen. Nancy C. Detert, R-Venice, and State Rep. Doug Holder, R-Osprey.
Although a first offense carries a $30 fine, additional texting violations within five years would lead to double that fine, and an additional three points against a driver’s license.
A motorist who accumulates 12 points in a year would face a 30-day suspension of their license.
This issue became more prominent in the past few years after some high profile and tragic instances of the dangers of driving while texting – including one very sad case in Davenport.
Heather Hurd was killed on Jan. 3, 2008, while riding with her fiance to Walt Disney World to plan their wedding. Heather was driving on U.S. 27 in Northeast Polk County and was stopped at a traffic light when a truck driver ran through the light and crashed into her car. She was killed instantly.
The truck driver had been distracted by a text message he was checking on his cell phone, and hadn’t notice the light was red.
That tragedy prompted Heather’s father, Russell Hurd, to launch a nationwide effort to pass Distracted Driving laws in all 50 states. In May 2011, he said, “Everybody has a Heather in their life. It may not be a daughter, but it could be someone they love with all their heart. And if you think about losing them to something as ridiculous as a text message, put yourself in their position. It’s never-ending pain.”
He was instrumental in getting the Maryland legislature to pass a law banning all cell phone use while driving, making texting a moving violation. It was called Heather’s Law.
He also serves on the board of directors of Focus Driven, a national group modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Known as “Advocates for Cell-Free Driving,” they argue that saving a life on the highway can be as simple as shutting off your cell phone while behind the wheel of a car.
“We’re trying to create awareness among all 50 states,” Hurd said.
It hasn’t been an easy effort. It’s been estimated that 90 percent of all motorists in this nation look at text messages while they’re driving. Even if some do it while stopped at a traffic light, they often continue reading their text messages once the light has changed.
In April 2011, the nation’s transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, tried to raise awareness of this issue by announcing that April was National Distracted Awareness Month. And while most states decided to ban texting and driving, holdouts like Florida proved to be challenging.
Hurd said opponents mainly argued that there are already laws against distracted driving on the books, and the key is to enforce those laws, not create new ones.
“That’s the main resistance we’ve been facing, that the government doesn’t have a right to impose on what you do in your own vehicle,” Hurd said. “But where your rights end and mine begin is a fine line. You don’t have a right to kill me — and this is happening far too often.”
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