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Distracted Drivers … A Timely Constituent Input… And Legislative Options Now Abound!

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by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

A year and a half ago, Jose Bengochea, a student at Ransom Everglades High School in Miami wrote to me. It was a passionate message dispatched without delay via email. His idea was to ban the use of cell phones for drivers driving in school zones during school hours, and yet he also concluded that email-checking, music and text messaging caused distractions, as well. He had tested his idea on his friends and family and many tried to dissuade him; but his research proved that distractions were all too common, especially for his age group - young drivers. His urgency to me was "that such a small step as this has the potential to save at least the life of one child somewhere in this great state". He asked for my help to make safety from distracted drivers a reality.

My colleagues and I are glued to blackberries, i-phones and emailing to stay in contact with our families, staffs and constituency. Jose jolted me to the reality that each electronics user is a potential driving hazard on the road; not to mention his age group of new teenage novice drivers dealing with music and texting distractions. A dear sweet young girlfriend of my daughters, Helen Sweet, was a victim of another young girl -- "just adjusting her radio". She killed Helen; pinning her to a massive fig tree near our home. It took only a moment's distraction.

I immediately sent letters to our Miami-Dade County Mayor and Commission… all of them; plus every member of the Miami-Dade County School Board and the Superintendent; plus our entire delegation to the Florida House and Senate. I also discussed it with our school board members, city officials, state legislators and my colleagues in the US House of Representatives. The research began and our legislative engines began to hum.

The Miami-Dade County Commission passed a Resolution "urging the Florida Legislature to prohibit talking, text messaging or otherwise using wireless communication devices while driving unless operated with a headset or hands-free device." Miami-Dade County was the first county in Florida to pass an ordinance restricting cell phone use while driving; and again, we continue to lead and respond to the advancements in technology.

Many variations of distracted driver legislation have wound their way through the halls of our State Capitol at Tallahassee, including one from our own State Senator Bullard, and one called "Heather's Law" that both deal with cell phone usage while driving. THIS week a brand new bill entitled "An act relating to text-based electronic communication devices" while operating a motor vehicle, is earning great support across Florida.

THIS week at the national level, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (NY), and U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (NY-4), introduced S. 1536 and HR 3535, the ‘ALERT Drivers Act' -- "to reduce.. Federal highway funding.. (as much as 25%) to States that do not enact a law prohibiting an individual from writing, sending, or reading text messages while operating a motor vehicle."

And also THIS week, US Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, at a two-day summit on distracted driving, said, "Distracted driving is an epidemic and it seems to be getting worse every year." The government reported nearly 6,000 killed and 515,000 were injured last year in crashes, where at least one form of driver distraction was reported. Sixteen percent of all fatal crashes in 2008 involved driver distraction. It is proven that distraction is prevalent for many young drivers. LaHood urges a "combination of strong laws, tough enforcement and ongoing public education."

Did you know that a drivers' reaction time is slowed as much as 35% when reading or texting? Compare that to 21% for smoking marijuana; and 12% for drivers at the legal alcohol-intake limit! Car and Driver magazine confirmed these results made initially by The Transport Research Laboratory in the United Kingdom.

And finally, THIS week, the National Transportation Safety Board has banned its 400 employees from talking or texting while driving during work hours; or when off-duty and using a government-issued wireless device. Other departments will follow suit.

The urgency of Jose's email (sent from his desktop computer) was heartfelt from a young man who saw a problem in his small part of the world. It was a timely clarion call for action. I thank NWYC for urging our constituents to Write Their Congressman and CongressWOman! Your email could save a life, maybe yours. # # #

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen serves the 18th District of Florida, including Greater Miami, Miami Beach, and along Florida's coastline, down through the Florida Keys! She is also Ranking Member of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.


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