The National Transportation Safety Board's nonbinding recommendation earlier this month to ban the use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving should be a wake-up call for Florida state legislators. Even if such a sweeping ban is too much for now, there are other ways for Florida to begin to address a serious safety issue that it has ignored for too long.
Florida remains one of only 15 states to resist a ban on texting while driving, mostly along the foolish reasoning that to do so would be an invasion of personal privacy. For three years, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has failed to pass a ban on texting while driving, a fate also suffered by lawmakers pushing to require drivers to use a hands-free device when making calls.
Detert, along with House co-sponsor Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, will try again in the legislative session that starts next month. Meanwhile, Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, have filed commonsense legislation that would ban drivers under 18 from using cellphones.
Both ideas make sense. Numerous studies indicate motorists distracted by mobile devices can be just as dangerous as drunken drivers. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports distracted drivers led to nearly 5,500 deaths and 450,000 injuries in 2009. Yet too few legislators grasp the need to reasonably restrict texting and telephoning while driving.
After the NTSB recommendation earlier this month, Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, complained of "big government overreaching, it's definitely nanny state.'' Senate Transportation Committee chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, reacted even more dismissively as he talked to a reporter while driving.
"You know the NRA saying that if they want my gun they'll pry it from my cold dead hands?'' Latvala asked. "That's what I think about banning cell phones and driving.''
With that kind of thinking, there wouldn't be laws requiring the use of seat belts. It's the same foolishness that enables motorcyclists in Florida to choose not to wear helmets. And the result is the same: more deaths and serious injuries in traffic accidents, which drives up vehicle insurance rates and hospital bills for everyone. The distorted claim that it's a right to endanger yourself while driving disregards the lives of others who share the same roads.
As a practical matter, eliminating all cellphone use, especially hands-free devices, is probably unlikely. But a sensible ban on texting and teens chatting on cellphones should be pursued by state legislators in 2012. It's a matter of life and death, not privacy.