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Simulator puts a 'distracted' Detert and grandkids behind the wheel in Capital

Sen. Nancy Detert wanted to demonstrate the dangers of texting while driving on Wednesday and wound up killing two deer. Virtual deer, that is. Detert, along with her two 15-year-old grandchildren, who recently got their learner's permits, were among the first to try out a simulator set up by AAA in the first floor Capital rotunda to show the perils of distracted driving; the simulator is used as an educational tool in schools around the state. Detert, R-Venice, has spent four years trying to pass a bill to restrict texting while driving.

The simulator allows  "drivers" to put on earphones, operate a steering wheel while looking at a screen, much like a video game, and drive while coping with everyday audio and visual distractions like a friend talking, soccer balls rolling across the road and approaching cars while attempting to send a text.

  The distractions alone caused Detert to hit the deer before she attempted to text. Her grandson Matt Detert, a sophomore at Northport High School, crashed into the back of a car, and his cousin, Stephanie Detert, a freshman at Venice High School, ran a stop sign when they tried texting. (This reporter tried the simulator and hit a police car while attempting to text.)

"So what did you learn Matt?" Detert asked after the high school sophomore had tried the simulator. "Don't text and drive," he said.

And how hard was it to text and drive? "You can't really do everything at one time, especially drive," Matt said.  "It was hard to drive and look at the phone," added Stephanie. "There were soccer balls and kids playing in the street. You couldn't really see them." 

Detert drove home her message: "You have enough distractions with your friends, the radio, everybody talking. Then, if you add texting to that, there's no way you can be successful driving a car ... It's just crazy. You can try to do all the right things as a driver of your own car but if someone's going to be texting. you're at risk every day of your life."

Getting kids involved in a safety initiative is crucial to ever changing the texting culture, said Jay Jefferson, a member of the Florida PTA Legislative Team and a Miami-Dade County Council PTA/PTSA board member. "Allowing the students themselves to have a part in the solution is important ... Ask them 'How do we best promote this as a safety initiative' so they can come up with their own ideas, because they communicate in a way that their parents can't."

At the same time, he said, "All too often parents fall into the trap of 'do as I say, not as I do' so it sends a wrong message if our words are hollow. It has to be a concerted effort for all ages."

Making texting while driving illegal will help change patterns in the same way the seat belt law changed habits, Detert has said. Her Senate Bill 52 would make texting while driving a secondary offense, which means a motorist would have to be stopped for another violation in order to get a ticket for texting. But the driver would then get two tickets as well as an additional fine. The bill has passed two committees and is next up for a hearing on the Judiciary Committee.

On Wednesday, the House companion bill,  sponsored by Representatives Doug Holder and Ray Pilon, both Sarasota Republicans, cleared another hurdle, unamiously passing the House Civil Justice Subcommittee.

“We’re on a roll,” said Keyna Cory, who has organized a coalition of more than 30 professional organizations, businesses and groups including Florida PTA, Walt Disney World, AAA, AT&T and AARP in support of  the texting while driving restrictions.