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Push made for harsher penalty to teens texting while driving

Firefighters: Law could be critical in curbing growing epidemic

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Texting and driving can be deadly for those not paying attention and others on the road, but it could also be a problem for someone miles away. 

Just about every time engineer David Morrison wheels out of the firehouse with lights flashing and sirens blaring, he’s delayed by someone texting or on the phone who doesn’t even know he’s there, Morrison said.

“We see it absolutely every day,” Morrison said. “Almost every time we take this fire engine out of the station, we come across someone that just isn’t paying attention, whether it be on their phone or something else.” 

Sen. Renee Garcia, R-Miami, has filed legislation to make texting for drivers under 18 a primary offense, meaning they can be ticketed without committing any other offense. For adults, texting and driving would remain a secondary offense, punishable by a $30 fine. Garcia decided to file the legislation after a hard-earned personal lesson.

“I got on my phone and started texting, and I hit the guardrail going into the highway,” Garcia said. “That’s the moment I said, ‘I’m going to stop texting and driving,’ and I think people need to be aware of the importance of having this bill.”

Lawmakers have balked at making texting a primary offense over privacy and profiling concerns. Garcia conceded that passing the law could be a heavy lift.

But firefighters said the law could be critical in curbing a growing epidemic.

“Absolutely, we see it every day, where the fire engine does not get to the scene as quickly as possible because we were slowed down by a distracted driver,” Morrison said.

Jacksonville firefighters are working to combat the problem with a campaign called “Stop the Texts, Stop the Wrecks,” sponsored by the Jacksonville Fire Fighter Charities. The campaign works to raise awareness of the dangers of texting and driving, particularly among teens.

Firefighters ask that once drivers know a fire engine or rescue unit is behind them, that they pull over to the right, leaving the left lane for them to maneuver through traffic.

Lawmakers begin committee meetings on Jan. 9. Their annual session begins in early March.