Crash victims' families push for tougher texting and driving laws

Cropped Photo: Courtesy: MGN
Cropped Photo: Courtesy: MGN(WJRT)
Published: Mar. 29, 2017 at 5:24 PM EDT
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By: Mike Vasilinda | Capitol News Service

April 6, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- A half dozen families who lost someone to a tragic traffic wreck were in the State Capitol today, pushing for tougher texting and driving legislation. The bill has been stymied by legislative leaders.

Gwendolyn Reese lost her niece, Devon, in a crash in 2015. She came from St. Petersburg to work in Devon’s memory.

"Someone described driving while texting or distracted by using your phone like having two to three drinks of alcohol. You can’t drive under the influence. You can’t drive while drinking, so why should you be able to drive while texting when the degree of distraction is equal," Reese said.

Reese says she doesn’t know for sure if tougher texting penalties would have saved her niece, but says they would have improved her chances.

"She was like my child. She was my brother's only child. We all raised her. She was our little angel. I didn’t know that your heart can break. But your heart can break and my heart is still broken. And I’m emotional whenever I talk about her, and I make no apologies for that at all," Reese said.

By: Mike Vasilinda | Capitol News Service

March 29, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- After losing a child in 2015, a St. Petersburg family is at the center of efforts to allow police to stop and ticket texting motorists. But one of the most powerful people in the state House says the cost to freedom is too high.

Lavon Reese was a senior at Florida State University when she was hit and killed by a texting driver. That was January 2015. Now, the family of the St. Petersburg native is on the forefront of lobbying for tougher texting laws.

Reese's cousin, Jeffrey Beaten, says, “My cousin was one of 218 individuals who passed away, was killed in accidents relating to texting and driving. So my family is not alone.”

”In one year?” we asked.

“In one year. 2015 alone,” Beaten told us.

The legislation has cleared two Senate committees, but its sponsor is not optimistic.

Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah) says, “I think its on life support, unfortunately. I hear that the House is reluctant to move the bill.”

There have been no hearings in the House. The biggest obstacle is speaker in waiting, Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami).

We asked for an interview, but House spokesman Fred Piccolo provided us with a statement saying the House had not yet formulated a position.

Back in 2013, Oliva told us, “I, like everyone else, want to see the end of children texting and getting killed in automobiles. Not at the expense of our civil liberties.”

House sponsor Emily Slosberg believes it could be 2021, after Oliva is out of the legislature, before the bill could pass.

Jeffrey Beaten says, “It will be 2021 before there is a Speaker who is friendly enough to let this come up? That’s really difficult for me to grasp.”

The driver who killed Lavon Reese is currently serving a three-year prison sentence.

The legislation would allow police to stop motorists who are seen texting, without observing another violation first. It carries a $30 fine.

In 2015, the state reports that there were 45,740 accidents caused by distracted drivers.