Column: Let’s make it illegal to text or hold a phone while driving

2019 needs to be the year when everyone puts the phone down when they’re behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Distracted driving is now an epidemic.
Published December 28 2018

This is the time of year when we like to make New Year’s resolutions. Maybe your resolution for 2019 is to eat better or exercise more, or maybe it’s to spend less. While those are certainly worthy goals, consider another resolution — one that could save your life and the lives of others.

2019 needs to be the year when everyone puts the phone down when they’re behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Distracted driving is now an epidemic. That is not an exaggeration nor is it hyperbole. We all see it on a daily basis — someone who is weaving side to side, endangering the lives of others because they are talking on the phone, searching for something online or too concerned with the latest text, post or tweet. Those drivers put screens first, not safety.

And the statistics are frightening. Cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year, according to the National Safety Council. In fact, one out of every four crashes in the United States is caused by someone texting and driving.

Here in Florida, more than 200 people died in 2016 because someone thought responding to a text or looking up something on the internet while driving couldn’t wait.

One of those Floridians killed in 2016 was 9-year old Logan Scherer from Riverview. He was in the back of his parents’ SUV on Interstate 75 when authorities say a distracted driver going 100 miles per hour slammed into the back of their vehicle. As a mother of five, I cannot even begin to imagine the pain, anger and sadness Logan’s parents, Brooke and Jordan Scherer, have endured since that tragic day.

The heartbreaking reality is Logan’s death was preventable, and he should be with us today, enjoying his holiday break from elementary school with his parents and younger sister.

In an effort to prevent more tragedies like this and put the brakes on distracted driving, I’ve filed HB 107. The bill bans not just texting, but even the act of holding a phone while driving. The bill also makes distracted driving a primary offense, meaning law enforcement officers could pull over a motorist if they see that driver using a phone.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has filed the same bill in the state Senate.

Florida is one of only four states where texting while driving is still a secondary offense. Every day that we wait to pass legislation that will act as a deterrent and make our roads safer, we put more Floridians at risk of injury or death.

But even if you have been fortunate enough not to be hit by a distracted driver, this epidemic is costing you money. With the number of distracted-related crashes skyrocketing, insurance premiums for everyone are rising. And if you do text and drive, watch out.

The car insurance search engine The Zebra says a ticket for distracted driving will cause your insurance premiums to jump an average of 16 percent or about $226 a year. While that may not sound like much to some, that represents a premium increase of nearly $8,000 since 2011, when carriers issued a penalty of just 0.2 percent for those caught texting or talking on a phone while driving.

Under my proposal, if you are a second-time offender more than your rates will go up; three points will also be added to your driving record.

Previous texting while driving proposals have drawn criticism from civil rights advocates because in some cases officers may have needed to search a person’s phone for proof the driver was on their phone. But under HB 107, that is no longer an issue. No one needs to search a drivers’ phone, because simply having your phone in your hand is a violation.

It is time we all join the millions of Americans who’ve embraced hands-free technology and put safety first to protect our loved ones.

So this year, as you ponder your New Year’s resolutions, I urge you to make a pledge to drive responsibly, put down the phone when you’re behind the wheel and focus on the road. Your life or someone else’s could depend on it. That text will still be there when you’re done driving. Sadly, little Logan won’t be.

State Rep. Jackie Toledo is a Republican from Tampa.