Gov. Rick Scott signs road safety bills

Bills focus on hit-and-run penalties, child restraint requirements

By Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida; Hailey Winslow, General assignment reporter

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott signed a pair of bills Tuesday aimed at improving safety on Florida roads.

Scott approved measures toughening penalties for drivers who leave the scenes of serious traffic accidents (SB 102) and raising the minimum age at which children can ride in motor vehicles without restraining devices (HB 225).

The hit-and-run bill, sponsored by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, is named after Aaron Cohen, a 36-year-old bicyclist who was killed in a 2012 accident on the Rickenbacker Causeway in Miami-Dade County.

The legislation would, among other provisions, create a four-year minimum mandatory sentence for drivers who leave the scenes of accidents involving death and require that an offender's driver's license be revoked for three years. The new law goes into effect on July 1.

"Creating the appropriate penalties for hit-and-run drivers is the right thing to do for our state," Diaz de la Portilla said in a statement provided by Scott's office.

Jo-lee Manning's daughter, Haley Smith, was hit and killed in St. Augustine while walking just inside the bike lane with friends down Kenton Morrison Road near Four Mile Road in November 2013.

Manning told News4Jax Tuesday night that she wakes up thinking about her daughter's death and twice a week stops by the memorial where her daughter was killed in the hit-and-run accident. After seven months, Manning said dealing with her daughter Haley's death has not gotten any easier.

"I never thought we'd be seven months out, and still not have the answers, because somebody knows something," Manning said. "Somebody knows who did it."

The change in the law gives Manning hope.

"I definitely think it's a step in the right direction," she said. "I don't think we're quite there yet. I'd like to see stricter penalties, but it's a step. Haley had family who loved her and she didn't deserve to die this way."

The car-seat law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, requires children up to 5 years old to be placed in car seats or booster seats when riding in a vehicle. Currently, only children 3 years old and younger are required to ride in the restraining devices.

"With this initiative, we are working to ensure our children travel safely and remain protected on the road," Scott said. "We will continue to do all we can to keep every Floridian safe, so they can enjoy everything our great state has to offer with their loved ones."

Kevin Bakewell, vice president of AAA Auto Club South, issued a statement with measured praise for the bill, though his organization recommends children use at least a booster seat until they are 4 feet 9 inches tall -- a height they usually reach when they are 8 to 12 years old.

"While this law does not cover all children who need to be safely restrained, it is a step in the right direction," Bakewell said. "On matters of public safety, Florida's parents look to state law for solid guidance. That's why this law is so important."

Scott's actions Tuesday mean that HB 561, relating to attorneys for dependent children with special needs, is the only bill approved by the Legislature this spring that the governor hasn't signed or vetoed.

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