By Michael Noble
Texting while driving, that practice so common among college and high school students, will become illegal in Florida if a proposed bill makes its way through the state legislature.
Senate Bill 448, sponsored by Nancy Detert, would outlaw what officials see as a significant cause of motor-vehicle accidents among teenagers.
Over 20 percent of fatal car crashes involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 are blamed on the use of cell phones or not paying attention to the road.
Here in West Palm Beach, the police department does not specifically track the number of fatalities caused by texting, but Public Information Officer Peter Robbins said that texting while driving is a serious issue.
“Taking your eyes off the road and your hand off the steering wheel to text or check email is not a safe behavior,” said Robbins. “It is even more important for younger and more inexperienced drivers to pay attention to their surroundings at all times.”
Detert’s bill prohibits “operation of a motor-vehicle while reading, manually writing or sending a message on an electric wireless communication.” If passed by the legislature, it would go into effect on Oct. 1.
Another bill pending in the Senate would prohibit truck drivers and public transportation operators from texting while operating their vehicles.
“Any measure that would reduce texting while driving would certainly help,” Robbins said, “but ultimately people need to accept the personal responsibility that comes with operating a motor vehicle.”
Robbins said he believes motorists have the responsibility to pay attention to the road.
“We all have the right to expect that our fellow motorists will be responsible drivers,” Robbins said.
Palm Beach Atlantic University President Lu Hardin teaches the class Law and Society, and earned his juris doctorate from the University of Arkansas School of Law.
He said the states that prohibit texting while driving generally classify the offense as a misdemeanor.
There are three classes of misdemeanor: A, B and C. Normally, class A misdemeanors involve a one-year jail sentence and a fine of $1,000. Texting while driving would most likely be considered a class B or C misdemeanor; these misdemeanors call for only a fine.
Despite its goal of decreasing the number of accidents, Senate Bill 448 has heavy opposition.
“The question is: at what point does the overall public good override the issue at hand?” Hardin said.
Many feel that by outlawing acts like texting while driving, the government is just simply going too far.
They maintain that using cell phones is a private matter. Whether texts are sent, written, or received while driving a car is the individual’s affair, and therefore the government has no right to limit their use, opponents say.
The same kind of argument is made for actions like applying make-up, changing CDs or eating while driving a car.
“We always discourage texting, checking email or any other type of distracted driving,” Robbins said. “Drivers have a responsibility to focus on the road and be safe at all times.”
“I would encourage people to write their senator and state representative, regardless of their position on the issue,” Hardin said.
To contact Detert, call (941) 480-3547 or visit her Senate Web site for more information.