We all know that using a cell phone while driving can take focus away from the road. 46 states think texting and driving is so dangerous it’s banned completely. Yet in Florida, where texting while driving became illegal in 2013, it’s only a secondary offense, meaning a driver must be pulled over for something else first.
Enter 17-year old non-driver Mark Merwitzer, a Palmetto Bay high school junior. Most would think Mark an unlikely crusader for affecting change to this law, but they’d be wrong. “I was a passenger heading over the MacArthur Causeway and I watched people clicking away on their phones not even paying attention to the road and I related what I was seeing to all the news stories about crashes and pedestrian and biker fatalities,” explained Merwitzer. “No one was trying to fix the problem and I felt compelled to get the issue in front of the right people to change the law.”
So, about 18-months ago, Mark started with Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava who put Merwitzer in touch with a lot of good people, including Palmetto Bay Mayor Eugene Flinn and Senator Miguel Díaz de la Portilla. It snowballed from there. Over several months, Mark met with youth councils, county officials and state legislators to argue that texting behind the wheel should be a primary offense.
It was Senator Rene Garcia and Representative Emily Slosberg who really connected with Mark and have sponsored the legislation in Tallahassee (Senate Bill 144 and House Bills 47 & 69). On Tuesday, April 4, the Senate was to have a hearing on the bill, but with resistance from several Senators and Representatives, that didn’t happen. Paraphrasing, Merwitzer believes the resistance by some lawmakers’ is predicated on them ‘not wanting to violate people’s individual freedoms and liabilities to do what they want behind the wheel.’
Mark is disappointed that the Bill was not heard this year, but vows to keep up the fight. Merwitzer added, “I am energized because I now have many connections and it’s easier to reach out to people to drive the cause forward. I feel I’ll do a lot better next year.”
Mark takes the Metrorail daily to the School for Advanced Studies Wolfson, and admits that some of his friends who drive may be texting when behind the wheel. However, Mark emphasizes, “They know to put their phones away when I get in their cars.”
If you’d like to follow this issue closer, go to https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2017/00144 and sign-up to follow the Bill automatically.