A Major Distraction for Minor Drivers

Leslie Schemer leads the life of a typical 16-year-old sophomore at Ponte Vedra High School. She cheerleads, spends time with friends, and now, much to the worry of her parents — she drives.

As with many teens, Leslie’s cellphone usually stays within reach, if not in her grasp, to keep her both connected and entertained. And that’s the problem: the troublesome combination of an inexperienced driver and an experienced texter.

This sets up a twist on an age-old tale: Teen gets license, teen develops newfound sense of freedom, teen loses license for texting while driving. That could be the case if state Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, has anything to say about it. And he does. Altman has been at it for a while. For years, he and a handful of other Florida lawmakers have been pushing to ban cellphone use behind the wheel. He said he and his supporters hope 2013 could be the year.

Altman said that minors are inexperienced behind the wheel; for this reason, laws should be made to encourage them to focus.

“We should protect the most at-risk group, and that’s our youth,” Altman said. “Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are inexperienced and are just learning to drive. Setting this standard may create good habits for a lifetime.”

If passed, Altman’s Senate Bill 152 would prohibit minors from using a cellphone or other wireless communication devices while driving. Violations would bring a stiff, 30-day license suspension. As if limiting teens’ calls and Facebook updates weren’t enough, the bill would also restrict the number of minors allowed to ride with 16- and 17-year-old drivers to three, unless accompanied by a 21-year-old. It’s billed as the Minor Traffic Safety Act.

Kim Schemer, Leslie’s mother, supports Altman’s proposed legislation.

“I rank texting while driving right up there with drinking and driving,” Schemer said. “It’s very dangerous and there are already enough distractions and difficulties inexperienced drivers face.”

Her suspicions regarding the dangers of texting and driving are accurate. Texting while driving is, in fact, more dangerous than drinking and driving, according to a study done by Car and Driver magazine. The same study also found that cellphone users are five times more likely to get in accidents than undistracted drivers.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 11 teens die in texting-related accidents every day. The National Safety Council found that 1.6 million accidents are caused every year by drivers typing out text messages; that’s nearly a quarter of all accidents.

Altman said that his personal attachment to this bill has kept him motivated.

“This has been a very big priority of mine on a personal level,” Altman said. “Car accidents are the number one killer of teenagers. It’s touched me and just about every person I know in some way or another personally.”

Florida wouldn’t be the first place where a law like this one has been passed. Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky have laws forbidding drivers younger than 18 from using their cellphones while on the road.

The numbers clearly reflect the dangers of using our cellphones while driving, so why just focus on those younger than 18?

State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said in an email interview that he supports the bill, noting there is a difference between legislating for children versus adults.

“As a father of three boys, one who is currently licensed to drive, it does concern my wife and me that distracted driving accident rates are highest amongst teenage drivers,” Bean said. “As for it being a stepping stone to make it illegal to use cellphones, as adults we have to be responsible for our own behavior and know when it is appropriate to use a cellphone when driving.”

Bean also said that he’s glad the issue is being brought up for discussion and that it’s the legislators’ responsibility to protect our society, but not to a point where micromanagement of individual behavior begins.

According to a poll conducted in 2011 by the Jacksonville-born firm of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, 71 percent of Florida voters supported a potential ban on driving while texting. The poll found that 77 percent of senior citizens were in favor, while 62 percent of voters 18 to 34 were in support.

The 16-year-old Schemer agrees with the portion of the bill that would outlaw texting and driving for minors, but disagrees with restricting the number of passengers.

“I think if you are a responsible driver and use what you have learned, carpooling shouldn’t be a danger to teens,” Schemer said. “Of course, it all depends on the driver and their focus.”

A study done by the Center for Injury Research and Policy in Maryland found that the risk of injury nearly triples for a teenager when he or she has three or more passengers.

Amanda Rhyne, 17-year-old senior at Englewood High School, said the proposed law is unfair and stereotypes teens.

“Not everyone my age is an irresponsible driver,” Rhyne said. “It’s an unfair generalization that all minors are dangerous and distracted when driving.”

Exceptions to Altman’s bill are that it wouldn’t apply to calls in case of emergency. The bill’s restriction on the number of passengers wouldn’t apply to family members.

Altman’s proposal was postponed until early February to be heard by the transportation committee. During this year’s legislative session, Altman and supporters will push to add Florida to the list of 39 other states that have already placed some sort of ban on using wireless devices while driving. Others will oppose the legislation, claiming that the law will infringe upon individual rights.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, opposes Altman’s legislation. He and others who have opposed similar bills in the Senate over the years have not voiced a particular disdain for the ban, but rather an aversion to additional government imposition in general.

“I’m voting ‘no’ again,” Negron said in a story for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. “We already have a law on the books against careless driving. If a driver is texting and not operating their vehicle in a safe and prudent manner, that’s already against the law.”

Florida House Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, said he looks forward to discussing this proposed policy in the upcoming weeks.

“I believe the parents have the ultimate authority and responsibility in this area,” Davis said.