Florida wants drivers to put down the cell phone

Driving while talking on a cell phone is risky. Texting while driving is flat-out dangerous.

Next week the state will launch a new public education campaign aimed at stopping both. The problem, said traffic cops and safety advocates, is that more and more of us are doing both these days.

"I saw a guy just a couple days ago had both hands on the Blackberry on Interstate 275 going home," said Cpl. Darrin Barlow of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "On the surface, it's common sense that we shouldn't text and drive, but I think people don't realize how quickly they can lose control."

Officials with the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles hope the department's "Stay Alive, Just Drive" campaign, which will try to educate drivers through brochures and billboards, will curb what they believe is a growing danger.

It's a danger that might be greater than previously thought, according to long-suppressed federal research.

Researchers estimated that 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in the United States in 2002 could be blamed on drivers using cell phones. Though there are no more recent statistics on how many fatalities can now be blamed on cell phone use, 100 million more people now use cell phones compared with when the research was completed.

The researchers recommended a ban on cell phone use while driving, saying hands-free devices were just as distracting.

Yet the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration kept the 2003 report out of public view until just recently, according to the New York Times, for fear of offending Congress. The agency also ignored calls to keep studying the problem.

The former head of the NHTSA said it was a political decision. His agency's funding might have been threatened if Congress felt it was lobbying for laws.

Florida law simply states that drivers must keep their cars under control at all times. Safety advocates lament that Florida is nowhere near joining California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Washington and the District of Columbia in banning handheld phones for drivers.

None of the bills limiting talking or texting while driving even made it out of committee this past legislative session, according to Jay Anderson, founder of the advocacy group Stay Alive … Just Drive!

"Most people believe that it's a problem, yet most drivers admit to multitasking behind the wheel," he said. "So the people who have created the problem are the ones that need to begin to correct the problem."

Safety groups have criticized the federal government for withholding research that might have bolstered calls for tougher laws six years ago — or at least helped turn the tide of a culture in which people are accustomed to calling and texting whenever they want to.

"It could have been beneficial to us as drivers and pedestrians," said Leticia Messam, traffic safety programs manager for AAA Auto Club South. "It could have been beneficial to society."

But not everyone agrees that new laws are the answer. One problem is that phones aren't the only thing distracting drivers.

"I've seen people read, I've seen people try to put on make-up, I've seen people tend to kids in the back seat," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon. "Where do we draw the line?"

That's why the state is choosing the education route, according to Florida Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Welch. The state also plans to gather better data to measure how many wrecks, injuries and fatalities can be blamed on cell phone use.

Enforcing such bans is another issue.

In serious crashes, police may be able to determine that drivers were using their cell phones, said St. Petersburg police traffic homicide investigator Mike Jockers. But that's not the case with everyday fender-benders.

In the most serious of crashes, investigators can subpoena cell phone records if they think the driver was using them. But to do so for every crash?

"We couldn't do it," Jockers said. "There's no way we could do it."

Jockers has spent a decade investigating dozens of traffic homicides. He agreed with the researchers that there's no difference between driving and talking on a handheld device or a hands-free device. They're equally distracting. But he doesn't buy research equating using a cell phone to driving under the influence of alcohol.

The real problem, he said, is texting while driving.

"Texting is out of control," he said. "It isn't so much people talking on their cell phones, it's people looking away from the road while driving."

Just this year, Highway Patrol Sgt. Larry Kraus said he worked a Pasco County crash where a 23-year-old woman going 45 mph rear-ended someone because she was distracted by text messaging.

No one was killed, but people were hospitalized. The young woman was scared, but apologetic. She said the crash never would have happened had she not been on the phone.

"The good thing was that she realized it," Kraus said. "The bad thing was it's too late at that point."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Driving habits
The state of Florida wants drivers to put down their cell phones. Can you? Be honest and check the box that best applies:
No distractions; I just drive
I talk and/or text on the phone while driving
I eat and/or drink while driving
I've done both Nos. 2 and 3

Florida wants drivers to put down the cell phone 07/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 6:01pm]

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