Imagine that a police officer pulls over a drunk driver, warns him that he is breaking a new law and then tells him to put down his drink and not do it again — and then sends him on his way. Ridiculous. Since July 1, texting while driving has been a primary offense in Florida, and police agencies are issuing few tickets, preferring education and warnings for now. Seems reasonable at first blush. But some studies have shown that texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk driving. So such leniency makes little sense, and it's time to enforce the law.
It doesn't take a study to know that distracted driving has become an epidemic and needs to be treated like one. Careful drivers see it every day, whether it's the person in the other lane with the phone held at the wheel, the driver who looks up from his smart phone just in time to avoid rear-ending the car in front (or not), or the texting motorist who wanders from lane to lane while distracted from the job at hand — actually driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, sending or reading a text message takes a person's eyes off the road for an average of five seconds; at 55 mph that's like driving the length of a football field with eyes shut.
Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston surveyed law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area and found only a handful of tickets had been written. In the few first weeks after the law took effect, Hillsborough and Pasco sheriff's offices each had issued one ticket, Pinellas had written two, and St. Petersburg Police hadn't issued any. In a directive, Florida Highway Patrol troopers were told to stick with written warnings through year's end.
Drivers don't need to be "educated" that texting behind the wheel is dangerous and illegal. They just need to stop — now. Tickets and fines will help. Warnings probably won't. And just as police officers can gauge when a driver blows through a stop sign or red light, they can figure out when drivers are texting.
How serious is the problem? Smart phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year, according to the National Safety Council. Drivers who are texting are responsible for one out of every four crashes in the United States. Last year, distracted drivers caused 52,129 accidents in Florida, and 233 people died. Hillsborough is ranked among the top five worst Florida counties for distracted driving with 4,301 crashes and 14 fatalities in 2018, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Thanks to good work by HB 107's co-sponsor Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, Florida now makes texting while driving a primary offense. Florida should eventually adopt a "hands-free" law, which would prohibit any handheld use of phones while driving. But a good start is enforcing the new one.
Florida was late to the game, now joining the majority of all but three states that have banned texting while driving. With the law now on the books, police agencies should not be tardy in ticketing. While they wait, the crashes will keep coming.