Legislators trying, but no Florida law yet for texting while driving

Aug 6, 2011

The following article was published in the Florida Times-Union on August 6, 2011:

Legislators trying, but no Florida law yet for texting while driving

By Adam Kealoha Causey

Florida hasn’t joined the 34 states that ban texting while driving, but traffic safety advocates say a new law isn’t necessary to curb distractions on the road.

Distracted driving caused only four deaths among 1,964 fatal crashes reported in 2009, the most recent year for which the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles had statistics. But like those who keep an eye on national trends, officials here say the problem is bigger than it seems.

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Motorists likely won’t confess to talking or texting when they cause a wreck, department spokeswoman Ann Howard said, but phones could have been factors. They’re not the only diversions in a vehicle, though.

“There’s texting. There’s eating. There’s yelling at your kid in the back seat – all while lighting a cigarette,” Howard said.

Law enforcement agencies are trying to get a more accurate count of when distraction contributes to crashes.

Starting this year, Highway Patrol traffic reports include a blank for everything that can draw away a driver’s attention and lead to a collision, according to FHP spokesman Lt. Bill Leeper.

“It’s important to know why they’re happening whether there’s a law there or not,” Leeper said. “There’s more cellphone usage and texting today than there were years ago. It’s something we need to look at now.”

Distracted driving often leads to traffic infractions, Leeper said. Drivers may speed, run stoplights or change lanes without using a turn signal because they’re not focused.

A spokesman for the national Governors Highway Safety Association said he expects all states to outlaw texting and driving. Eventually the federal government may withhold funding from those that don’t.

But there are other ways to save lives in the meantime, according to the association’s Jonathan Adkins.

Low-cost engineering improvements, such as laying down rumble strips, could jar drivers back to alertness when they leave their lanes, an association study said. Auto manufacturers also could install devices in vehicles that warn drivers of dangerous situations.

“Passing a law is important,” Adkins said, “but it’s not a magic bullet.”

The Legislature has considered bills to ban texting while driving but nothing has become law. In 2010, Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, and then-Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, each co-sponsored similar legislation in their respective chambers. If approved, it would have allowed for drivers to be cited if they texted while driving, but only if pulled over for another violation.

This year, Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, authored a bill aimed at doing the same thing, but it also did not make the cut.

McBurney said he can’t speculate on just when the Legislature might be ready to make a change, and the failures thus far don’t rule out eventual success.

“It’s not uncommon that it takes a few years to pass,” McBurney said. “Sometimes it just takes time.”