Hillsborough students: Pass bill to ban smoking while driving with kids
TALLAHASSEE - Rebekah Morffi recalls riding in a car at age 5 while her grandmother drove and smoked. "I remember sitting in the back, suffering, coughing and not being able to do anything about it," she said. Now she is doing something about it, and smoking while driving with a child could become illegal in Florida. On Wednesday, the Bloomingdale High School student, along with seven other students from Hillsborough County high schools convinced a Senate panel to approve their proposal to prohibit adults from smoking in a car carrying any child under age 16. The bill emerged through a program called "Ought to be a Law," created in 2004 by Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, to give a real-life civics experience to high school students, and a route for those students to see their ideas made into state law.Every year, high school students from around the Tampa-Bay area compete for the chance to present a legislative proposal addressing a specific need or problem. Ambler and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, sponsor the winning proposal and shepherd it through the process. Wednesday, students cited dangers to children from second-hand smoke, especially in confined spaces such as cars. Specifically, the proposed rule would address drivers already being cited for a violation, and provide for an extra penalty of $100 for smoking, even if the car is parked. In addition to Morffi, students involved in this proposal include Aaron Coutinho (homeschooled/Chamberlain), Fadwa Hilili (Tampa Bay Technical), Alexander Mejia (Sickles), Lacie Browning (Durant), Kayla Helton (Chamberlain), Aaron Santana (Bloomingdale) and Emily Sukloff (Bloomingdale). Morffi, the original writer of the bill, remembers seeing public health commercials that showed a mother smoking in a car with an infant. "I thought, 'Hey, that happened to me,'" she said. That began a long process of working toward a bill. Though the bill cleared the Transportation Committee unanimously, its odds of passage are dim at this late point in the session. The bill has two more committee references, and neither of those committee leaders have indicated that they plan to take up the bill, Crist said - though he hopes they change their minds. " On the House side, Ambler's companion bill never made it beyond the workshop stage in the Roads, Bridges & Ports Policy Committee, where members complimented the students profusely on their efforts but made clear they had reservations about the proposed government interference and what at least one representative called "the nanny state." The bill has three more committee references in the House, but most committees in the lower chamber have already stopped meeting. After the House bill workshop last month, the students remained upbeat, saying their primary goal was to bring awareness to what they believe to be a serious problem. Ambler noted that some Ought to be a Law proposals have re-emerged in later sessions with greater success - such as the 2009 student proposal to ban texting while driving, which failed last year but has enjoyed more momentum this session. This could be the last year for Ought to be a Law - at least in its current form - since both Ambler and Crist are both leaving their seats due to term limits. Ambler, who is running for Crist's seat, hopes to continue it in the state Senate, but he is in a tight race with County Commissioner Jim Norman. A spokeswoman for Norman's campaign called the program "a noble effort" to educate students but said it is not high on his priority list. Several leading candidates for Ambler's seat have said they are interested in continuing the program in the House. Ambler said the program could turn into a statewide competition in the future, since several members from other areas of the state have expressed interest in it this year.
Reporter Catherine Whittenburg contributed to this report. Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919.