A family impacted by texting and driving joined law enforcement officers, doctors and legislators at the Capitol on Friday to speak out in favor of legislation that would prohibit the practice.
Steve and Agnes Augello of Spring Hill lost their 17-year-old daughter, Alessandra Augello, in a 2008 crash. They say the other driver, 19-year-old Alyssa Dyer, was texting prior to swerving out of her lane. Florida Highway Patrol records show a text message arrived to Dyer's boyfriend after the crash. Both drivers died.
The Augellos have made it their mission to draw attention to the problem of distracted driving and assist in passing bans on the practice in Florida.
"This has become a legal weapon," Agnes Augello told a group of reporters standing outside the House of Representatives chamber. "Whoever it is that's holding it up, please, let it go."
According to a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll, 71 percent of Florida voters support a ban on texting while driving. Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has for the past three years sponsored a bill that would penalize the practice as a secondary offense. The bill, SB 416, is advancing in the Senate this year, but its companion, HB 299, has not been scheduled. Some Republicans, including House Speaker Dean Cannon and Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, have said it would limit personal liberty and be tough to enforce.
Detert showed up to the conference, hosted by AAA and the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota. Using the phone while driving, Detert said, has become an unnecessary epidemic.
"In the old days, how many times did you have to pull over and make a call from a phone booth?" she said. "Practically never. Now everything's an emergency."
After the press conference, the Augellos visited the offices of Cannon and Drake, chairman of a key House committee. Both were unavailable, but the family came by unannounced. They were able to get a brief meeting with Lynn Cobb, who advises Cannon on policy, but reporters weren't invited in.
The Augellos emerged a short time later. It was not optimistic, they said.
"Nothing like the wizard telling you you're not going back to Oz," said Agnes Augello.
Her husband rubbed her shoulder.
"You know what I say, hon'?" he said. "Next."
They moved on to Gov. Rick Scott's office and waited for an hour, but they were not able to get a meeting.
By Stephanie Hayes, Times staff writer
Photo: Steve and Agnes Augello, of Spring Hill, appear at a press conference Friday advocating for passage of a texting-while-driving ban, which has moved in the Senate but is stalled by House leaders. Photo by Colin Hackley.