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  1. Opinion

Cars + cell phones = another blunder for Florida politics

If some legislators and advocacy groups have their way, scences such as this one on Himes Avenue in Tampa will be more and more rare. Bills have been introduced in the state Legislature for the 2019 session that will outlaw the use of cell phones not equipped with hands free devices. (Times files)
Published Dec. 4, 2018

Florida has its share of natural hazards that most of us accept as sort of a cover charge for tropical paradise. Sinkholes, for instance. Also hurricanes. And NRA lobbyists.

And yet, sadly, there is another hazard that Florida inexplicably, and unnecessarily, invites upon itself. That would be the scourge of drivers using cell phones.

With distracted driving accidents on the rise in the era of smart phones, it's not difficult to make a case that Florida's driving laws remain some of the most permissive in the nation.

Look at it this way:

Florida is one of seven states where driving while texting is not a primary offense for all drivers. It's one of 12 states that has no cell phone bans on novice drivers. And it is one of 30 states that does not ban the use of hand-held phones, or at least gives local municipalities the option to ban them.

The only other states to make all three of those lists? Montana and Missouri, whose combined population is about one-third of Florida's. In other words, when it comes to traffic density and cell phone indulgence, Florida roads may be the most dangerous in the United States.

"We're doing nothing to control this problem, which means we're letting chaos rule our streets,'' said Demetrius Branca, who has been imploring legislators to pass stricter laws since his son Anthony was killed by a distracted driver in Tallahassee four years ago. "We don't allow law enforcement (officers) to do their jobs. I don't understand what our elected officials are thinking. It's absurd.''

Politicians actually have been talking about this for years.

They just haven't accomplished much.

Right now, texting while driving is a secondary offense in Florida. That means a cop cannot stop someone simply for sending or reading texts while driving. You can only be ticketed for texting if you were already being pulled over for a different driving-related offense.

A bill last year would have elevated texting to a primary offense — sort of like the seatbelt law that gives cops permission to stop noncompliant drivers — and it passed the state House by a 112-2 vote.

But the bill never made it to the Senate floor because Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, did not allow it to pass through a committee he ran. Why? Ostensibly because some people had concerns about privacy issues if a police officer wanted to scroll through a phone to verify recent use.

Related: Cell phones and driving will be target for Florida lawmakers in 2019

So does that mean it's every driver for himself in Florida?

Perhaps not. Two weeks ago, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, filed a new bill that would not only make texting a primary offense, but would also prohibit talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device in the car. A similar bill has been filed in the House, and others may be on the way.

"Our laws need to adapt to keep up with the changing technology,'' Simpson said. "While there have been some legitimate concerns and valid points raised about bills in the past, this has clearly become a very, very serious safety problem and we would be irresponsible not to address it.''

By taking his bill a step farther and banning cell phones without hands-free technology, Simpson has potentially eliminated the privacy issues. A cop does not need to look at a phone's screen to see if a driver was texting; just having the phone in your hands while driving is reason enough to be stopped.

If the bill passes, it would put Florida in line with a couple dozen other states that require drivers to incorporate Bluetooth or other hands-free technology to have phone conversations while driving.

Georgia enacted a hands-free cell phone law this summer, and the Georgia State Patrol said year-over-year accidents were down 2.5 percent in July and 8.9 percent in August. In the first three-quarters of the year, fatalities in Georgia were down 11 percent, which was the largest drop in a decade.

"If the numbers in Georgia turn out the way I've heard, then it's a great example of how this can help,'' said Keyna Cory, of the Florida Don't Text and Drive Coalition. "Law enforcement was already behind the bill last year, but now they're really excited about the new version. The last bill would have been harder to enforce, but now it's going to be really obvious to a police officer if someone has a phone to their ear. We are very hopeful that this is the year it's going to pass.''

Florida is already well behind the curve nationally on this issue.

To put off reforms any longer is simply inviting more tragedy.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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