Stop this killer of teenagers

Published Feb. 5, 2013

One of the great success stories between public policy and the private sector has been the cooperation to significantly enhance driving safety.

Vehicles themselves are better engineered than ever, with safety systems and automated sensing capabilities that make the difference between life and death for drivers every day. Efforts to improve behavior behind the wheel — particularly when it comes to drunken driving — have perhaps been as important. Today, DUI is universally recognized as a true public health hazard.

We must treat the danger of text messaging while driving with the same sense of purpose. There is solid evidence that a cellphone is even more dangerous than alcohol, especially for young drivers.

In 2011, texting surpassed alcohol as the leading contributing factor in teen driving deaths. The statistics are shocking: According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, texting while driving is as hazardous as driving after having four beers. It's about six times more likely to cause an accident than driving while intoxicated. And 24 percent of all crashes — that's 1.3 million collisions — involved cellphones. All of which contributed to the most horrifying statistic of them all: Eleven teenagers were killed every single day of 2011.

The Florida Legislature can help, because it's at the state level where the greatest good can be done. New laws are essential to reduce the occurrence of texting and other forms of distracted driving, and what's equally important is that we have the motivation to actively enforce them on our roads from the Keys to the Panhandle and everywhere in between.

The benefits are enormous — and achievable. You need look no further than the success of seat belt legislation to see how much can be accomplished when the will is strong. According to the NHTSA, since states started enacting seat belt laws, in 1984, usage has gone from 14 percent to an estimated 85 percent today, saving approximately 10,000 lives a year.

Add that to the other safety enhancements that have been implemented over the past 45 years, and traffic fatalities have dropped from 5.5 per 100 million miles driven in 1966 to just 1.1 in 2011, as reported by NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System. That translates into about 140,000 fewer deaths last year alone. But we can do so much better.

As the chairman and CEO of AutoNation, the country's largest automotive retailer, I have a professional interest in promoting a safer driving environment for all of us. Every single day, 11 sets of parents hear from the police that their children won't be coming home, all because of texting.

Let's give parents the ammunition they need to tell their kids that texting while driving isn't only wrong and isn't only dangerous but is illegal. I urge you to take action today. We must have a bill that makes texting while driving illegal.

Mike Jackson is chairman and CEO of AutoNation.