Florida recently joined the nation in allowing police officers to pull over cars simply because a driver or passenger isn't buckled up. Now the Legislature should take the next step in saving lives on Florida's roads: Outlaw cell phone use and texting while driving.
The state is going on record condemning the use of a mobile device behind the wheel, even though lawmakers have repeatedly been cowed by the telecommunications industry and never seriously considered an outright ban. The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has joined a campaign urging drivers to avoid using such devices while behind the wheel, heeding the overwhelming scientific research that even hands-free phone devices dangerously distract drivers.
Just Tuesday, the New York Times reported on an 18-month study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that found long-haul truck drivers increased their chance of collision 23 times when they text messaged. They took their eyes off the road for nearly five seconds — enough time for their trucks to travel the length of a football field. That follows other research by the University of Utah that showed drivers text messaging while using a simulator increased their chance of collision by a factor of eight. Several earlier studies show talking on a cell phone increases the crash risk by a factor of four.
Other states get it. So far, 14 have outlawed text messaging while driving. But only five states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the use of handheld cell phones. In Florida and elsewhere, the telecommunications industry — eager to have users running up minutes whenever possible and aided by a federal agency that suppressed important research on the subject — has thwarted serious discussion of the safety issues.
As early as 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration knew talking on the phone while driving was unsafe. Researchers traced an estimated 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in the United States in 2002 to the practice and recommended banning cell phones, including those with hands-free devices, while driving. But the federal agency buried the report, saying it feared it would lose funding if Congress thought it was lobbying for a law.
There is every reason to believe that mobile devices pose an even greater threat now due to higher usage and sophistication. What's more, the country's newest crop of teenage drivers hail from a generation far more dependent on mobile telecommunications. There's little reason to hope — short of a law — that teenage drivers will ignore their phones simply because they're told it is dangerous, especially when they see so many adult drivers gabbing.
Opponents argue that banning the use of cell phones while driving amounts to more government intrusion in individuals' lives and that enforcement would be difficult. Those are false arguments. Drivers are exercising a privilege when they take to the road in a heavy, fast vehicles that can kill and maim others. Just as society has an interest in limiting that danger by licensing drivers, banning intoxication and requiring seat belts, it has good reason to ban a practice that significantly impairs a driver's ability to control a vehicle. Florida should move to save innocent lives and ban the use of mobile devices while driving.