Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

Florida's texting while driving ban turns up few citations

As Gov. Rick Scott grinned and uncapped his familiar blue Sharpie, a crowd of students at the Miami high school cheered.

"We must do everything we can at the state level," he had told them, "to keep our teenagers and everyone on our roads safe."

At last, Florida drivers were banned from texting.

The law, however, made it a secondary offense, which means drivers can only be stopped if they commit another violation, like speeding or running a red light.

"I think people want to comply with the law," Scott told a reporter that same day. "I think it will be enforced."

Now nine months since the ban took effect, a Tampa Bay Times review has found that the law is so difficult to enforce that it is rarely used.

Statewide, law enforcement officials are on pace to issue fewer than 1,800 citations through the ban's first year.

To understand how meager a figure that is, consider: A federal study published last year found that at any given daylight hour, 660,000 drivers nationwide are using cellphones or other electronic devices. If those figures are proportional state-to-state and you're reading this before sundown, that means about 40,000 Florida drivers are at this moment distracted by technology.

Far more obscure infractions are cited at much higher rates, according to 2013 data: failure to dim lights (3,056 citations), improper parking (11,872), improper backing (21,376).

Those tasked with upholding the ban have found it especially frustrating because although they see drivers punching buttons on phones every day, the law gives them little authority to act.

"It's almost unenforceable," said Lt. Cleven Wyatt, a 26-year veteran of the St. Petersburg Police Department. "It sounds good to have a texting ban, but it's not working."

• • •

The dangers have been argued in classrooms and state Houses for years.

Depending on which study you read, phone usage makes a driver between three and 23 times more likely to crash. In 2012, one person was injured every 75 seconds due to an accident involving a distracted driver, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Of those, 3,328 people were killed.

Florida is one of just five states that hasn't made texting while driving a primary offense, meaning that is the only reason an officer would need to stop a motorist.

Sen. Maria Sachs, a Democrat from Delray Beach, blamed the law's impotence on her Republican colleagues.

"There is a group of conservatives, and I have to say they're in the other party, who do not want government regulation to infringe upon people's liberties," she said. "My argument to that is if you step inside of a car, your liberties are going to be controlled for public safety."

Sen. Nancy Detert first proposed the law four years ago.

"I thought that it was a five-minute bill," she said. "A no-brainer."

The Venice Republican said she thinks other lawmakers viewed it as a slippery slope — the first step toward a broader distracted-driving ban. The legislation became a product of compromise: Beyond the fact that drivers may only be stopped if they've committed another violation, they also may only be ticketed if they've pressed multiple buttons on their phones specifically "for the purpose of nonvoice interpersonal communication," which means a driver may still press multiple buttons to navigate, make a call, or change the radio.

At stoplights, the law doesn't apply at all.

Investigators may not access a person's phone records unless a crash causes injury or death, making citations tricky to uphold in court.

"Unless you say, 'Yes, I was texting,' it's very difficult to prove," Sachs said. "It's a bill that bans it in name only."

The citations usually cost people just more than $100 and add no points on driver's licenses.

• • •

At the bottom of the slope that Florida's conservative lawmakers want to avoid slipping down are 13 states that prohibit hand-held use of phones while driving.

California enacted its law in 2008, among the first to do so.

In the 4 1/2 years prior, 2,291 drivers distracted by cellphone use were involved in injury collisions, according to the California Highway Patrol. That figure plummeted by 41 percent during the years that followed.

Still, the rate at which California drivers continue to use cellphones — despite fines in excess of $150 — indicates that more stringent bans are not a cure-all. An average of 155,000 tickets are issued there every year.

Florida lawmakers say regulations here could evolve the same way they did for driving without a seat belt, which only became a primary offense five years ago.

Supporters of a stricter texting law argue that it's illogical for seat-belt use to be so much more scrutinized, because unlike drivers who use phones, drivers who don't buckle up place no one but themselves at a higher risk of injury or death.

• • •

In late December, Mark Weissfeld got lost driving to a pharmacy in Hyde Park.

Weissfeld said he consulted a map on his phone. Emergency lights flashed in his rearview mirror.

A Tampa police officer, he said, accused him of not wearing a seat belt as well as texting. The Bell Creek Academy guidance counselor denied both and fought the latter. Weissfeld, 43, said he showed the judge phone logs to proved he hadn't texted near the time he was stopped. He was found not guilty.

"There was no way he could prove it," Weissfeld said of the officer. "How can you prove it?"

Confessions seem to be the easiest way.

Five months ago, Michelle Joseph, 40, realized she was about to take the wrong exit off Interstate 75, so she swerved back onto the road. A trooper stopped her for swerving but also accused her of texting.

She told him she had just checked an email, not texted.

The trooper told her that was still illegal.

He wrote her a ticket, and, knowing it was deserved, she paid the fine.

Joseph, a financial controller, supports the law and believes it should be a primary offense, but acknowledged that she continues to check email while she drives.

• • •

The man who killed Kim Wright's son admitted it, too.

Justin Mitchell was 25, a recent University of Florida graduate. He had come home to Melbourne for Easter weekend last year to see his family and, on one clear night, planned to go fishing with a high school friend, Garrett Viccaro, who was a chef.

They caught bait in a canal and headed to a nearby bridge around 11:15 p.m.

His eyes on a text message, Vincent Worbington drove across that bridge 30 minutes later.

The SUV first hit Mitchell, launching him into the water.

Viccaro, just two days short of 25, was struck next.

Mitchell, his mother's only child, drowned.

Viccaro, his mother's only son, died of a brain injury.

Worbington, 44, told investigators about the text, but served no prison time. The judge gave him community service, a $1,000 fine and suspended his license. It's unclear what sentence Worbington might have received had he run over the men today. The legislation doesn't call for a harsher punishment, but it does outlaw texting while driving, which prosecutors say makes charges of negligence easier to argue.

It could take years of data collection for officials to know the ban's true effectiveness, but Wright doesn't want to wait. The law, she said, needs teeth now.

"It has to be enforced," Wright said. "You have to make people think."

Times researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact John Woodrow Cox at [email protected]

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