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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

Today marks three years since Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a ban on texting while driving, after a long campaign by supporters to persuade the Florida Legislature to approve the change. Yet car accidents caused by distracted drivers have still increased at a frightening rate and auto insurance premiums continue to rise. It's time for state lawmakers to take the next step and make texting while driving a primary offense, which would enable police to enforce the law without waiting for drivers to commit another violation — or crash.

More and more Florida drivers are crashing as a result of distracted driving. Accidents involving distracted drivers rose by 36 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to preliminary data from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported by Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet. Last year, 11 people died in Hillsborough County in such crashes, and 11 more died in Pinellas County. The three types of distractions the state considers are looking away from the road, taking one's hands off the wheel, and thinking about something besides driving. Texting involves all three. Researchers have found texting can double a driver's chance of getting in a crash or near-crash.

The consequences can be life-threatening and expensive. Florida drivers pay some of the highest insurance rates in the country, which have risen 14 percent since the beginning of last year. The prices are going up, insurers say, because they're getting more and more claims. Even safe drivers who avoid crashes feel the impact in their wallets.

In Florida, a driver can't be pulled over just for texting. The law is enforceable as a secondary offense, meaning a driver caught speeding could see extra points on their license if they also were texting at the time. That makes it difficult for police to punish drivers who text, and there is less motivation for drivers to put their phones down. Bills introduced in the Legislature this year to make texting a primary offense stalled, but lawmakers should continue those efforts and legislative leaders should support them.

The state's texting law is one of the weakest in the nation. While 46 states make texting while driving illegal, Florida is one of only five on that list that don't make it a primary offense for all drivers. At least the others with secondary bans — Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota — also ban handheld phone use of any kind among new drivers. Florida doesn't do that, either.

Laws that make texting a primary offense better protect drivers. A 2013 study of crashes from across the country found that "fatal accidents are reduced by bans if they are enforced as a primary offense and cover all drivers." However, "bans enforced as secondary offenses … have at best no effect on accidents." The American Economic Journal study found that, like other new traffic laws, texting bans cause fewer crashes immediately, then the effect gradually declines. Regardless, secondary offense laws do considerably less to curtail crashes.

The ban on texting as a secondary offense was a good start, and that is exactly the way the requirement to wear seat belts began. But just as failing to wear a seat belt became a primary offense, it's time to take the next step for the texting ban. This should be a priority for the Florida Legislature when it meets next spring.