Handicapped Fuel Access Creates Heated Debate

TALLAHASSEE, Fla-- Millions of disabled Floridians will either benefit or be hurt by legislation that seeks to standardize how gas stations assist handicapped drivers. While the legislation sets a statewide standard, it would also wipe out some local ordinances that go further.

J.R. Harding is a quadriplegic. He's been unable to buy gas for all but six months of the last 24 years. That's when Leon County adopted an ordinance to require gas stations to install buttons like this one, so attendants can help the handicapped.

"And I know they can help me during those days when the manager and the owner said so," Harding said.

Other counties have adopted similar requirements. That's sparking a fierce debate at the state Capitol.

The fight's really over whether or not counties that already have an ordinance get to keep it or if the state law makes the local ordinances obsolete.

"Our convenience store owners would prefer not to be required to have these call buttons," Melissa Joyner Ramba said. Ramba is with the Florida Retail Federation.

Sponsor Mark Danish, a Democrat from Hillsborough County says the bill's patterned after a two-year-old law in Hillsborough county.

"It's been working very successfully," Danish said.

It requires a sticker on gas pumps, telling motorists how to call inside.

"The County people, they have enforcement rules, and they said they haven't really had to do it," Danish said.

John Fleming of the state's Retail Federation calls it common sense.

"Should you have a sticker or should you have an expensive call button installed? And I think we heard today that there are many issues with the call buttons," Fleming said.

But, Harding says it makes no sense at all.

"I'm not able to drive and call and pull my phone out and do it because of the dexterity problems I have," Harding said.

The fierceness of the debate caught many by surprise, sparking calls for compromise that would leave both sides happy.

An amendment was narrowly shot down that would allow counties like Leon with ordinances already in place to keep them.

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