A state legislator who considers texting while driving as bad as drunken driving -- and maybe even worse -- agreed Thursday to a weakened ban that in most cases forbids investigators from searching a motorist's cell phone records.
That concession, though, brought back to life a texting bill that had seemed destined to die before the Legislature adjourned Friday. Florida has been one of only a handful of states that don't restrict texting while driving.
After Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, agreed to the change, the Senate voted nearly unanimously to send Gov. Rick Scott the bill Detert has been trying to pass for five legislative sessions.
The proposal (SB 52) makes texting a “secondary offense” while operating a moving vehicle, meaning a traffic officer would have to see some other offense before stopping drivers for punching a phone number or message into a cell phone or other electronic device.
The House added an amendment by Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, that forbids search of phone records for evidence except in crashes involving death or injury. Detert didn't like the amendment -- fearing drivers in routine cases would simply deny texting, and beat the rap in court for lack of evidence -- but she accepted the change rather than see her bill die.
Detert's bill does not apply to texting while stopped at a red light or parked on a road side. Use of voice-activated messaging would be allowed.
She said she considers texting as dangerous as drinking and driving, in some conditions.
“The behavior of a drunk driver is sometimes better because they know they're drunk and they're trying to be on their best behavior,” Detert told the Senate.
She said she keeps a sign in her office that says, “Don't let the perfect get in the way of the possible,” so she accepted the political realities of the expiring legislative session and the House's insistence on protecting personal phone records from police searchers.
Besides, she said, a secondary offense means an officer is already going to be writing a ticket for a primary traffic infraction, so the $30 fine for texting often would not be contested.
Conversely, Detert said, an innocent driver could bring phone records to court and prove that he or she was not texting at the time of a traffic stop. Only the prosecution, not the defense, would be forbidden to present electronic records in cases not involving death or injury.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, cast the lone vote against the bill on final passage. He said a driver might be glancing at a screen to check an address, and police would have a hard time proving a text message or phone number was being entered at the precise moment a traffic stop occurred.
“We already have a law -- it's called reckless driving,” Negron said.
Detert and Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, the House sponsor of the bill (HB 13), said their main intention was not to punish drivers but to educate young drivers about the distraction of texting. They said a generation ago, seatbelt use was not enforced but that a “secondary infraction” law about 20 years ago made people aware of the danger and young drivers today routinely buckle up.