By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ST. PETERSBURG ─ To ban or not to ban, that is the question.
Throughout the state of Florida, lawmakers and citizens’ groups are casting their ire on cell phones, demanding the government step in and ensure safety and transparency in one fell swoop.
In one case is a proposal to stop tech-loving drivers from picking up their cell phones while behind the wheel. In another, is a move to stop lawmakers from texting lobbyists during public meetins.
Though the proposals are vastly different, they represent the growing push to legislate and regulate citizens’ relationships with their mobile devices.
The most visual protest occurred on Tuesday at the Tampa Convention Center, where the site played host to the first-ever Florida Distracted Driving Summit.
It was attended by some 300 public officials, lawmakers and car-crash victims sharing their stories.
“Florida needs to pass a distracted driving law,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, one of the more high-profile attendees who delivered the keynote address. “We can make a difference. What it takes is really mobilizing people, educating people and having you all persuade legislators.”
He pointed to the federal government’s aptly-named website, distraction.gov, and labeled distracted driving the “epidemic” of our time, recommending strict measures to keep drivers from handling mobile devices while they’re behind the wheel.
But while anecdotal evidence seems to be leading the debate concerning distracted driving laws, a recent study casts doubt upon the assertion that mobile phones are the main culprit in roadway crashes.
A March 2012 study sponsored by the American Automobile Association and conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center found that young drivers, the most accident-prone among all driving groups, are most likely distracted by rowdy passengers in the car, changing the radio station and eating or drinking while at the wheel.
Use of mobile devices was the least prominent distraction observed, being overtaken by “adjusting controls, personal hygiene, communicating with someone outside the vehicle and reaching for objects in the vehicle,” according to the study.
“Electronic device use and other distracted driver behaviors were strongly associated with looking away from the roadway, although electronic device use was only weakly related to serious incidents,” the authors concluded.
The presence of mobile phones at government meetings, on the other hand, was first addressed in the battle over the sick-leave initiative at the Orange County Commission.
The proposed ballot referendum would have required businesses with more than 15 employees to offer one hour of sick time for every 37 hours of work — capping one week of annual sick leave.
The lead group supporting the measure, Citizens for a Greater Orange County, a mishmash of local and federal public-sector unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Amalgamated Transit Union, took to the courts to uncover the text messages of county commissioners who later rejected the proposed referendum. The county commissioners were said to have been exchanging messages with lobbyists opposed to the measure during the meeting on Sept. 11.
The commissioners deleted the text messages in an apparent violation of Florida’s public records law. Text messages sent from county phones are considered public business, according to Citizens for a Greater Orange County.
Local officials now have proposing banning cell phone use during public meetings to avoid confusion in the future. The officials also want to review texting and reporting laws.
“We have to be above the honor system,” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs told the Orlando Sentinel.
Commissioners also proposed installing jamming devices to stop communications coming from public meetings, as well as outright banning cell phones on days when meetings are held, according to meeting minutes from the Orange County Commission.
Attempts to reach a spokesman for Citizens for a Greater Orange County were unsuccessful.
Contact Yaël Ossowsk, Watchdog.org’s Florida Bureau Chief at [email protected]
— Yaël (@YaelOss) November 14, 2012