Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Public safety

Without funding, state tries other ways to publicize texting ban

Starting Oct. 1, texting while driving will be illegal in Florida, but absent state funding to promote the law, efforts to get the public up to speed with the changes could be spotty.

Digital boards along the state's highways will light up Thursday, Oct. 1 and Oct. 15 with the message "Don't text and drive. It's the law," but otherwise don't expect a major Florida safety campaign directed at the general public.

The reason? Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $1 million put in the budget in part to help promote the ban.

To Russell Hurd, whose daughter Heather was killed in 2008 in a texting-related accident on her way to meet a Walt Disney World wedding planner in Orlando, the lack of a public safety campaign is one more lapse by the state.

"To pass the law as weak as it is and not back it up with continuing education is just meaningless," Hurd said. He has been instrumental in pushing for texting laws in his home state of Maryland, which will make using handheld phones illegal for drivers next month.

Florida will become the 41st state to prohibit texting while driving for all motorists. But unlike the majority of those states, the law will be a secondary offense. That means an officer will have to witness another offense, like swerving or running a stop sign, to ticket the driver. Another roadblock: It's okay to text if you're stopped at a red light or if you have a talk-to-text device like the iPhone's Siri.

The penalties are $30 plus court costs for a first offense and $60 for a second offense.

Some traffic safety experts have criticized the law as too weak and too difficult to enforce, but punishing drivers isn't necessarily the main purpose of the texting law, proponents say.

"Really an important part of this is educating the public," Florida Highway Patrol Col. David Brierton said. He stressed that "if you text and drive three things occur: You take your eyes off the road, you take your mind off of driving, and you take your hands off the wheel. And that creates a hazard."

Rep. Doug Holder, R-Venice, who proposed the educational campaign and worked on getting a texting bill passed for five years, said he thought the money lawmakers budgeted "was a good way of educating the public because texting was such an important bill and it took so long to get passed.

"I can't tell you I'm not disappointed," he said. "But I understand the governor made it very clear he'd be looking very closely at returns on investment."

Sen. Nancy Detert, also a Venice Republican and a fellow champion of the texting law, said the bill has received so much coverage "that everyone knows it's passed. The only question I hear from the public is 'When does it start?' "

Others are more critical of the law and the state's decision not to heavily promote it.

"It's almost worthless as far as I'm concerned," said David Teater, senior director of the National Safety Council. "The state is telling kids that you can text as long as you don't do anything else wrong. The degree of risk involved in driving while texting is similar to drunk driving, speeding and reckless driving —and it's a secondary offense?"

The state is doing some things. The state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the Department of Transportation will join a campaign being led by wireless phone companies to discourage students from texting while driving.

Statistics show that on average, teens send five times as many text messages a day as a typical adult, said Stephanie Smith, director of public affairs for AT&T Florida. And teens are "much more influenced by their peers on how to act and what to do."

The FDOT has also adapted for Florida materials from a federal program against distracted driving and, with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, is sponsoring "Put It Down Day" Oct. 1 to coincide with the new law.

As for enforcement, the Florida Highway Patrol and other law enforcement organizations said their officers are alerted to all new traffic laws, but they haven't planned any special training to get ready.

Don't expect any grace periods such as those given to Ohio motorists, who had a six-month education period where police officers could warn drivers but not issue tickets.

The new ban is "a good starting point, but we'd like to see texting as a primary violation so we will have more teeth in the law," said St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon.

 
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