Sunday, April 22, 2018
Public safety

Carlton: Add muscle to Florida's texting-while-driving ban

After only nine months, Florida's law against texting while driving is officially toothless.

Across the state, police can spot a motorist looking not at the road but at his phone, madly typing in messages, directions, smiley face emoticons, whatever — all while careening down the interstate in the lane next to you.

And unless this motorist is also committing some other infraction, under the new law police can do pretty much nothing. They cannot pull him over just for texting, even though the driver and his rather critical eyes are concentrating elsewhere.

Imagine, says Tampa police Sgt. Carl Giguere, closing your eyes while driving for the 10 to 15 seconds it takes to type and send a text. "You just can't describe how dangerous it is," he says. And under this weak-kneed law, officers are practically powerless to stop it.

Sound absurd? Blame your Legislature.

After years of trying, believers could only manage to pass a secondary-offense texting ban that says a driver has to be doing something else wrong — like speeding or driving carelessly — before the cop can make the stop.

Never mind ours is one of only five states that doesn't consider the act of texting enough to get you pulled over. Never mind the accidents, injuries and deaths attributed to distracted driving.

Okay, I admit this: When Florida's texting law finally passed in 2013, I figured it was a good step. You know, better than nothing.

Not much better, as it turns out.

According to a recent Tampa Bay Times report, the tepid law has few takers. Hillsborough and Pinellas each issued fewer than 50 of the $30 citations in the first eight months it was in effect. Statewide, police gave out a fraction of texting tickets compared with citations for less dangerous acts like improper backing.

I say "toothless." State Sen. Maria Sachs of Delray Beach says "impotent."

"We are handcuffing our law enforcement" with this version of a good law, she says.

But Sachs' attempts to toughen the law in the last legislative session died on the vine. Came the rallying cry from those opposed: Big Brother, stay outta my car!

Except lives — and not just that of the guy behind the wheel — are at stake. "You start texting and driving," Sachs says, "that's where your freedom ends and responsibility begins."

Now for the hopeful part, courtesy of our all-American culture of by-gosh wearing our seat belts.

My sister and I grew up climbing around like wild monkeys inside the family car as we rode down the highway, but these days most of us belt ourselves in as routinely as we close the refrigerator door. This is true particularly for kids for whom this has always been the law.

Previously a secondary offense, not wearing your seat belt became a primary reason police could pull you over five years ago. Which surely is at least partly why some of us are careful to wear them.

A motorist sans seat belt endangers himself. A driver with his eyes on his phone forces the rest of us into the potentially deadly mix.

Hello, Tallahassee?

Sachs and others are expected to try again next year. Maybe, as with seat belts, we'll begin a slow slog toward changing a culture that currently says it is okay to do something dangerous while you drive.

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