Lawmakers eye ban on text messaging in effort to reduce Florida car accidents

The push is on to ban text messaging while driving in Florida, as lawmakers aim to reduce the number of serious and fatal car accidents caused by distracted driving.

South Florida car accidents are often caused by distracted drivers, including those on cell phones. Other forms of distracted driving include eating, drinking, talking to passengers or using other in-car electronic devices like car stereos and GPS systems.

The latest proposal by Florida lawmakers came last week, when a bill was introduced that would make it a civil offense, punishable by a $30 fine, for motorists to read or write text messages while driving. Lawmakers have been trying for several years to pass another bill, known as “Heather’s Law,” which would seek a complete ban on cell phone use behind the wheel, except those with headsets or other hands-free devices.

That proposal is named in honor of a teenager killed in a Florida semi accident by a tractor trailer driver who was allegedly text messaging at the time of the crash.

Florida is one of 31 states that does not yet outlaw text messaging while driving. The federal government increased the pressure this month when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued sample legislation it hopes states will use to enact such laws.

More than 200 distracted-driving laws were introduced in statehouses across the country last year, but only a small percentage became law, according to a recent analysis by the New York Times.

“Our top priority is safety and we are determined to help the states eradicate the dangerous practice of texting while driving,” said David Strickland, Administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has also launched a website dedicated educating the public about the dangers of distracted driving — www.distraction.gov — as it moves aggressively to prevent drivers from texting while driving.

The government contends texting and driving is even more dangerous than other forms of distracted driving because it involves three forms of distraction: visual, manual and cognitive. Earlier this year, President Obama issued an executive order banning all government employees from texting while driving and the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new orders forbidding commercial truck and bus drivers from operating hand-held devices while behind the wheel.

The government estimates nearly 6,000 people a year are killed and more than 500,000 injured in car accidents involving distracted drivers. In 2008, a total of 2,978 people were killed in Florida car accidents — third-most in the nation behind California and Tennessee, according to the NHTSA.