A standoff between an insurance company and a handful of lawyers in the Alabama Senate killed a bill to ban texting while driving in the state even though legislators overwhelmingly supported it.
State Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, blamed Alfa insurance for the demise. But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, said it died because Bedford and other attorneys in the Senate insisted on having language on negligence that benefited plaintiff lawyers.
"Bedford said if it wasn't in there, he wouldn't let it come up," McClendon said Monday.
McClendon, a retired optometrist, offered a simple bill that levied a $25 fine for a first offense.
He was trying to make Alabama the 20th state to ban text messaging while driving. The federal goverment banned it in 2009 for its employees driving on government business, and numerous studies have shown texting leads to more distracted drivers and increases the likelihood of an accident.
Before the legislative session began in January, about four out of five legislators responding to an Associated Press survey expressed support for McClendon's bill. The House approved it 95-3 shortly after the session started.
Then it went to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Bedford and other lawyers, including committee Chairman Myron Penn, D-Union Springs, rewrote it. One provision they added said if someone is texting and collides with another car, the texting driver is presumed to be negligent.
Paul Pinyan, general manager of Alfa Services and executive director of its Alabama Farmers Federation, said the company supported McClendon's original bill. He said the negligence language had never been in any Alabama traffic law, and the company was concerned about the legal impact.
"It's the unknown," he said.
State Farm spokesman David Majors said the insurance company would have preferred to omit the language, but it was more important to try to reduce accidents and save lives by passing the bill than to kill it over the wording.
"For the greater good of the texting bill passing, we are OK with the language," he said.
Birmingham attorney Mike Ermert, legislative chair for the Alabama Association for Justice, said the plaintiff lawyers' group believed the language strengthened the bill by providing consequences for texting while driving. The association said it was willing to it if it would help the bill pass.
McClendon confirmed Ermert's willingness to compromise.
Bedford wouldn't budge. He said if Alabama is going to make text messaging a crime, drivers involved in accidents should face penalties in lawsuits.
McClendon, the sponsor, says he will be back with the bill next year. Unlike most legislators, McClendon can make that statement with confidence because he faces no opposition in this year's elections.