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Florida ranks only so-so with traffic safety laws

Your Dr. Delay Factoid of the Week: On Christmas Day, 1999, according to new research by the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airline flights arrived at their destinations an average of six minutes ahead of schedule. Of course, your flight wasn't among them.

It is a well-documented fact that Florida's streets and highways aren't as safe as they could be, and that Pinellas County is an especially dangerous place for pedestrians. Now there is additional evidence from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that we need to get the Legislature on its toes where it comes to traffic safety laws.

IIHS looked at traffic laws in all 50 states and evaluated key provisions where enactment and enforcement have proven successful in changing driver behavior and reducing crash deaths.

Assessments were made in six categories: alcohol-impaired driving, young driver licensing, safety belt use, child restraint use, motorcycle helmet use and use of cameras to detect and identify those who violate red lights.

The strongest laws across the board are in California, Maryland and the District of Columbia, according to the institute. The weakest are in Montana, South Carolina and South Dakota.

Florida falls somewhere in the middle, but rates a "Good" in only one category, its drunk-driving laws. On conviction of a first offense, Florida law requires the revocation of a driver's license for periods of 180 days to a year.

Nine states have no requirement for automatic revocation, and 17 more don't require revocations for periods as long as 30 days.

"Administrative license revocation is the cornerstone of an effective DUI or DWI program," says Allan Williams, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute.

Strangely, in the area of graduated license laws Florida rates only an "Acceptable," even though this state invented the concept in 1996 and has been improving it ever since.

New drivers may get learner's permits at age 15, but can only drive between the hours of 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. with licensed 21-year-olds in the front seats next to them. The new drivers must have a learner's permit for 12 full months before getting a restricted driver's license.

That license, available at age 16, prohibits driving between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless in the company of a licensed 21-year-old or driving to and from work. At age 17, the prohibited driving hours shrink to 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., and at age 18, all restrictions end.

Jessie thinks this is a pretty good system. Back when I got my first license in Ohio, it was a learner's permit at 16 and a full license as soon after that as I could parallel park my father's land yacht of an Oldsmobile.

The Florida system is catching on. Today, only nine states have failed to enact some form of graduated licensing.

On the use of seat belts and child safety restraints, Florida rates only "Marginal."

New Hampshire is the only state that does not require seat belt use (perhaps the state motto should be changed from "Live Free or Die" to "Live Free and Die"). But most states don't have provisions for police to pull over motorists solely for lack of seat belt use.

Florida law requires that all children 16 and under use a child safety restraint or seat belt no matter where in a vehicle they are sitting. In 14 states, children too old to be covered by the child-restraint provisions need to buckle up only if they are in the front seat, which is the same provision that covers adults.

"This makes no sense," Williams said. "The back seat is where we tell parents it's safest for their children to ride, so laws should cover the kids who sit there."

Florida rates "Poor" in the category of motorcycle helmet use, and it should. Last year, the Legislature made helmet use optional for those 21 and older who have at least $10,000 in health insurance coverage. Riders under 21 still must wear helmets.

And Florida also rates a "Poor" in the use of cameras to catch red-light violators because, for the most part, Florida doesn't do that.

"Until a few years ago, red-light violators had to be apprehended and ticketed one-by-one," the institute said. "The odds of this were so small that offenders found little reason to change their ways."

Now systems exist to snap photos of vehicles running red lights, which cuts the violations by 40 percent. But only six states have authorized them, and Florida isn't one of them. Too many people argue it would be an invasion of their privacy.

Oh, puh-leeze!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And now, hearing the drum roll, we realize it is time for the Eyeball Jiggler of the Week, known to you all as the EJW.

This one is automobile-caused, though the threat is more to pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders, scooters and skaters. Some folks living on 62nd Avenue S in the Pinellas Point Apartments have been getting into their parking lot by driving over the grass and over the sidewalk just west of 21st Street S. This has caused a major upheaval in the sidewalk, which users might not see until it's too late.

It doesn't seem like that big an imposition to suggest that residents there continue west, make a left onto 22nd Street and then a left into the real parking lot entrance. Or that the apartment complex or the city put up barriers to stopper up the shortcut.

But what do we know?

_ Dr. Delay can be reached by e-mail at, by fax at (727) 893-8675 or by snail mail at 490 First Ave., S, St. Petersburg 33701.