Monday, February 19, 2018
Public safety

Even in Florida, no-duh laws can happen

It's hard to shock anyone with true stories of Florida, since nothing is too weird to have happened here. Giant pythons, a mystery monkey, bizarre crime, crazy politics, sun, surf and sinkholes — we've got it all.

Although when it comes to our laws, you might raise an eyebrow with the one about how once upon a time across much of the Sunshine State, it was perfectly legal to drive around with a frosty can of Bud in your hand, maybe even toast the police officer in the next lane, without fear of a ticket.

People to whom you told this crazy tale might say: Wait a minute — wasn't this incredibly dangerous, given the grim consequences we know can come from drinking and driving?

Well, yes. So in 1988, we put a statewide stop to it, banning "open containers" in cars.

Someday, we may similarly wow them with the one about how our state was among the last in which a driver hurtling down the highway could also simultaneously type messages on a cellphone — an act likened to driving the length of a football field at 55 mph with your eyes shut. And, perfectly legal.

People to whom you told this crazy tale might say: Wait a minute — wasn't this incredibly dangerous, given the grim consequences we know can come from texting and driving?

Turns out even in Florida, we may have finally figured this out.

Poised to pass at last in Tallahassee, hopefully, is a no-duh texting ban that could mean a ticket for drivers who are typing away when they should be watching the road. This week the bill got through the Senate 36-0.

Even with fist-bumps all around in the name of safety and common sense, some who pushed for this are disappointed that texting behind the wheel would be a mere secondary offense and a $30 fine.

Secondary means police have to see you doing something else wrong before they can pull you over and ticket you for texting, too. So how many times have you witnessed a car driven unsteadily, drifting, braking or doing something otherwise erratic, and you pull up alongside to see the driver busy typing away? If you're a regular on the roads around here, I'm betting more than once.

Primary offense for which police can pull someone over: Careless driving. Secondary offense: Texting while driving. Double ticket, double whammy.

Truth is, some of us will do things that are convenient but dangerous until someone says we can't — even after we've all heard terrible stories of avoidable tragedies, sometimes involving teenagers. (And not just them: Gregory Wynn, a traffic corporal with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, tells me he's seen motorists with books and newspapers on their steering wheels. "I enjoy reading," he says, "but that is bizarre," and dangerous, too.)

So don't you think a texting law on the books would have at least some of us saying: Okay then, since I officially can't, I won't?

"It's a step," says Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, who recently saw a young woman who blew through a red light in Ybor City obliviously texting away.

Finally, a historic note: Not wearing a seat belt also used to be a secondary offense here — until we got smart enough to see that saving lives was worth pulling folks over. Eventually, sensible things can happen. Even in Florida.

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