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Was it political? FL texting and driving ban hits speed bump

3:48 PM, May 1, 2013   |    comments
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South Tampa, FL -- A ban on texting and driving is popular with the public, and it looked like it was finally on a fast-track to Governor Rick Scott's desk.

But now, a last-minute amendment may have put the brakes on the proposed law, and legislators are running out of time if they're going to get it done before the end of the legislative session this week.

Just about everyone agrees that trying to drive and text at the same time is a distraction that can cause accidents. 39 states plus Washington D.C. have banned it, and Florida looked like it was about to join that group.

But some say politics has gotten in the way.

Who will it affect? Maybe Matthew Hall. Hall was just glad to be all right after his SUV got crushed in South Tampa on Wednesday. Witnesses say the other driver ran a red light and may not have been paying attention.

Emil Ferrand, who saw the whole thing happen, says it "looked like her head was maybe down or aside, but then she looked up and she was going through there."

"She, well, may have been texting or at least talking on the phone and I don't think either/or is a good idea," said Hall.

If investigators determine texting was the culprit, it's the type of wreck proponents are hoping to avoid with a new texting and driving ban.

But the bill, which looked good until a day ago, suddenly got derailed by a last-minute amendment that critics say may have been politically motivated.

The texting amendment would keep police officers from being allowed to check the contents of a person's phone, except in the case of accidents involving injury or death.

Republican Rep. Jose Oliva from Miami, who added the change, insists it's about protecting privacy.

"Any law that seeks to give up our civil liberties or ask us to, I will amend so it doesn't do that," said Oliva.

But critics say Oliva had weeks to add that amendment, and question whether he did so to get back at Senator Nancy Detert. Detert was the only Republican to stand and speak against the defeated "parent trigger" bill. And it just so happens Detert is the Senate sponsor of the texting and driving bill.

"I don't know. I really don't know what's going on. But it's not good," said House sponsor Rep. Irv Schlossberg (D-Boca Raton).

Sen. Detert herself agreed the whole thing smacks of politics, and still wasn't sure about accepting the amended version.

"When it comes back over, we'll decide if we want to take it and have it done with and have a law," said the Republican from the Sarasota area, "Or if we want to strip the amendment off and send it back to the House."

Matthew Hall hopes there's still enough time to get it done. Hall urges lawmakers to place public safety above politics, "and hopefully somebody with power will be able to change it," he said.

The bill, if it passes, would make texting and driving a secondary offense. That means there's only a fine if you're pulled over for doing something else wrong first.

It carries a $30 fine for a first offense and $60 for any more offenses within five years.

The latest on the bill itself was that it passed through the Florida House Wednesday including, the new amendment.

It now goes back to the Senate.

If passed there, the driving and texting ban may still be able to get through this session. But if legislators strip the amendment or try to change it yet again, proponents may have to wait until next year to try again. 

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