Florida drivers should give themselves a pat on the back (as long as they don't do it while flying down the interstate). State officials recently announced that the fatality rate on Florida roads dropped to a historic low last year. The Florida Highway Patrol is increasing patrols this holiday weekend, but think how many more lives could be saved if the Legislature would become just a little more progressive.
The state's fatality rate dropped to 1.3 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled in 2009, the lowest ever reported. The total number of deaths, 2,563, is nearly 1,000 deaths lower than 2005. State highway officials attributed the decline to a variety of factors, from public relations campaigns targeting motorcycle safety and teen drivers to tougher enforcement of DUI laws. Another possible reason: Lawmakers made failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense in Florida last year, enabling law enforcement officers to pull over drivers solely for not being buckled up. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration once estimated that change in law alone could save 200 lives in the state.
Unfortunately, state lawmakers failed to significantly build on last year's work in this year's legislative session. They did authorize the use of automatic cameras to ticket drivers who run through red lights, which happens so often it was tied to 76 deaths in the state in 2008. But there is some question about how many accidents red light cameras may prevent — and whether they may actually cause other accidents triggered by drivers who stop abruptly.
What could have been even more effective is a ban on texting while driving. That bill died in the House because of an illogical argument by Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who called it "intellectually dishonest.'' Never mind that nearly two dozen states have a similar ban and that texting while driving dramatically decreases reaction time. Until Florida lawmakers can grasp the dangers of texting, it's too much to hope for them to understand that a ban on talking on hand-held telephones while driving also could save lives.
In this summer vacation season, safe driving takes on heightened importance with more motorists on the road. While Florida's traffic fatalities are on the decline, they could drop even further with a couple of reasonable changes in the law.