Florida Lawmakers Must Get Tougher on Texting and Driving (Editorial)

Every year, bills to make it a more serious offense are ignored at the state level, usually by lawmakers who say it's government interfering in your lives.

by Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) / December 14, 2016

(TNS) -- If you're not texting while driving, you likely know someone who's doing it.

Perhaps it's a friend or a child — or even a parent. Nearly three quarters of adults now own smart phones.

Texting and driving has become a national epidemic, with studies showing it's as dangerous as drinking and driving. Yet Florida remains one of 11 states that doesn't make it a primary offense. And every year bills to make it a more serious offense are ignored at the state level, usually by lawmakers who say it's government interfering in your lives.

That needs to change before more lives are lost. While a tone-deaf state Legislature seriously considers expanding the ability for Floridians to carry guns in public in the supposed name of safety, they're ignoring texting while driving — a real issue that's endangering lives.

State Reps. Richard Stark (D-Weston) and newcomer Emily Slosberg (D-Boca Raton) have filed legislation that would make texting while driving a primary offense. Currently, it's a secondary offense, which means a police officer can watch you text behind the wheel but can only pull you over if you're violating an unrelated traffic offense.

A real threat of being pulled over for texting will encourage drivers to stay off their phones. But Stark believes politics will triumph over safety.

"The chance that this bill is going to pass is probably slim to none," Stark admitted.

Slosberg has also filed a second bill that would make texting while driving a primary offense for juveniles.

That's how little confidence Stark and Slosberg have in their initial bill even making it to a vote in the GOP-dominated Legislature. Slosberg hopes state lawmakers will at least have the common sense to give law enforcement the ability to pull over teenagers who are risking their lives — and ours — by using their phone while driving.

Until 2013, there was no law in Florida regulating texting behind the wheel. Then it became a secondary offense. Much has changed since 2013, when 55 percent of American adults owned a smartphone. Now, it's 70 percent.

Distracted driving, which includes texting and using your cell phone, accounted for 12.2 percent of all crashes in Florida last year, according to the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles division. Drivers taking their eyes off the road caused 7.4 percent of fatal crashes and 15.4 percent of all injuries from crashes. There were more than 39,000 injuries and 200 fatalities in our state last year from distracted driving.

In 2014, nearly nine people were killed nationwide each day and 1,180 injured from crashes involving a distracted driver. Yet bills making texting while driving a primary offense in Florida haven't even made it out of committee in recent legislative sessions.

The primary opposition comes from conservatives who don't want any government interference in our private lives. There's also some pushback from black lawmakers.

State. Rep Bobby Powell (D-Riviera Beach) opposes making texting while driving a primary offense because he believes it will give law enforcement another tool to pull over minorities.

"The way we've written the law, it's your word against his word," Powell told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board.

Powell raises important concerns about "Driving While Black," and it's part of a larger discussion that needs to take place between law enforcement and the African-American community. But it shouldn't be lumped in with a deadly traffic safety issue.

The same concerns were raised in the long, drawn out battle over seat belt enforcement. Buckling up became state law in 1986, but not a primary offense until 2009.

Let's hope it doesn't take another 23 years before law enforcement has the ability to pull over drivers for fiddling with their phones while behind the wheel.

No matter your political views, if you've seen a driver texting behind the wheel, it's made you cringe. Many "hands-free" states have taken it a step further and banned all physical use of phones while driving.

Stark knows that's not a reality in Florida, and it's why he's focusing only on making texting a primary offense. Even if his bill passed, Floridians would still only be subjected to a $30 fine. It would remain legal to dial while driving and text at a red light. But this bill would at least give drivers a greater pause before texting behind the wheel.

With lawmakers so unwilling to seriously tackle this issue, it will take a real grassroots efforts from Floridians to prevent more traffic deaths.

©2016 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.