TALLAHASSEE – Florida may become the next state to bar drivers younger than 18 from using cell phones behind the wheel, with some legislators saying they’re alarmed by teens text-messaging while driving.
Senate Transportation Chairman Carey Baker, R-Eustis, and Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, have introduced legislation (SB504 and HB193) to make Florida the 18th state with such a ban.
Legg says his legislation is homegrown.
“I’m the father of two teenagers who text-message more than they talk on the cell phone,” said Legg. “We have a rule they can’t use their phones or text while driving. But I see their friends doing it at stop signs or with one hand on the steering wheel.”
The legislation would allow law enforcement to issue non-criminal traffic citations to drivers younger than 18 caught using an electronic wireless communications device while driving, meaning no cell phones, laptops or hand-helds.
Headsets wouldn’t be allowed either.
But the proposal would allow a ticket to be written only when the driver is stopped for another infraction, similar to the way Florida’s seat-belt law is enforced. If found guilty, the driver would be assessed one point on his or her license.
Baker said that provision should make the measure acceptable to most lawmakers when the Legislature convenes in March.
Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, and Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, said the bill sounds like a good idea. Aronberg said he would be careful when reading the bill to make sure there are exceptions in emergencies. Skidmore said she thought the bill should be expanded requiring adults to use hands-free devices.
“But certainly young folks learning to drive should be more focused and restricted from even using hands-free,” Skidmore said. On today’s roads, “If you make a mistake someone is dead, dying or injured.”
Legislation banning cell phone use for all drivers was first proposed in Florida five years ago. But such measures have failed, with legislators saying they would be too much government interference.
Baker cited similar concerns last year when he blocked efforts to allow cameras to be installed at intersections to catch red-light violators, drawing criticism from some law enforcement officials, safety advocates and newspaper editorial boards that called for such devices.
Concerns about government over-reaching are likely to be raised with the proposed teen cell phone ban, but Baker said the measure is warranted.
“I just know how kids are,” Baker said. “They get distracted easily, and that’s how accidents happen.”
A study by the Allstate Foundation, an group allied with the insurance giant, found that 13 percent of teens admit to text-messaging while driving.
“We have a problem with all drivers, really, using cell phones. But I think this is a reasonable step,” Baker said.
California in September became the latest state with a ban, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation prohibiting drivers younger than 18 from using mobile devices.
Talking or listening on a cell phone is among the most frequently cited distractions affecting drivers involved in a serious auto accident, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles, which has not taken a position on the legislation.
“What you want to stop is the social networking by text message while they’re supposed to be focused on the road,” Aronberg said.
Some parents — and even teenagers — say the ban sounds like a good idea.
“It makes sense,” said Lorraine Zaron of Boca Raton, who has two teenage sons. “I do talk to them about not using the phone while driving, but whether they listen to me or not — I’m not in the car with them.”
Jade Kral, 17, of Coral Springs, who began driving last year, said it’s naive for parents to think their teens don’t use their phones while driving.
“Most [teens] aren’t allowed to use cell phones, but they do anyway,” Kral said, adding the ban “would probably scare them into not using them.”
Kral said if the ban passed, it would affect her cell phone use while driving. “If it’s an important call, I would use it briefly, but I wouldn’t use it for longer conversations anymore.”
Ben Bornstein, 15, a sophomore at Orange County’s Edgewater High School in the Orlando area, has had his learner’s permit since February.
“People are texting around here all the time,” Bornstein said. “That’s how a lot of teenagers get in accidents.”
Bornstein’s mother, Debra, 43, of Maitland, said the restriction would allow new drivers to stay focused — and think twice before answering a cell phone or replying to a text message.
“Kids would realize that the message can wait until they pull over or get out of the car,” Debra Bornstein said.
The ban’s age restriction would be unfair, said Anna Annecca, 16, a Fort Lauderdale resident who began driving in January 2006.
“It shouldn’t just be restricted to teenagers,” she said. “I know older people who drive so much worse.”
Staff Writers Juan Ortega, Maria Herrera and Jerome Burdi contributed to this report.