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Room for Debate: Should Florida Restrict Cell Use and Texting While Driving?

| December 14, 2011

That's next. (ATLFocus Photography)

In 2010, the number of people killed in traffic crashes in Florida dropped to a record low of 2,563. The overall traffic-fatality trend for the past 10 years has been down. In 2002, 3,143 people were killed on Florida roads.

The decrease is perplexing in some regards. The safer trend has coincided with an almost 18 percent increase in the state’s population in the past decade, to 18.8 million people. The safer trend has also coincided with the rapid increase in the use of electronic devices in cars and trucks: cell phones, texting, global positioning systems (GPS), DVD players, and now an increasing tendency to surf the web while driving. Nationally, just 13 percent of the population owned a cell phone in 1995. Today, that number is up to 80 percent.

But the safer trend is also reflective of a greater emphasis on highway safety, including seat-belt laws. Two years ago, the state’s seatbelt law was further strengthened when lawmakers allowed police to pull over and ticket drivers for not wearing a seatbelt. Previously, police were not allowed to pull someone over exclusively because of a failure to wear a seatbelt, though drivers could be issued citations as part of a traffic stop involving other matters.

Recently, phone companies have adopted the same technique as liquor makers: selling their product while also advising on safer use of the products. Verizon, for example, is running a “Don’t Text and Drive” campaign.

The question remains: to what extent is distracted driving a cause of traffic crashes, and should cell phone and texting use be regulated in Florida?

Year after year, bills have been introduced in the Florida Legislature to restrict use of cell phones while driving. There’s been proposals to ban talking on a cell without a hands-free device, proposals to ban texting while driving, proposals to ban texting by novice drivers while at the wheel. The U.S. Department of Transportation makes available a sample bill that would prohibit driving while manually typing anything in or reading anything from a wireless device, GPS devices and radios excluded.

And every year, the bills fail. Today, Florida is one of a handful of states to have virtually no law whatsoever regulating the use of wireless devices while driving. Thirty-four states ban texting for all drivers, nine states ban hand-held cell phone usage, 30 ban all cell phone use by novice drivers, and 19 ban cell phone use by school bus drivers when they’re ferrying children. Most states also require police agencies to report distracted driving related to cell phones in crash data. Not Florida, making it one of just two states—along with Ohio–to have no regulation whatsoever, including crash data reporting, relating to cell phones and driving.

Last week, yet another proposed law was filed in the Legislature. The five-page bill (HB 39), sponsored by Rep. John Patrick Julien, D-North Miami Beach, would slap a moving violation on drivers caught using a hand-held cell phone

The prohibition is enforceable as a secondary offense. A first violation is punishable as a nonmoving violation, with a fine of $30 plus court costs which vary by county; the total fine plus court costs and fees ranges from $78 to $129. A second violation committed within 5 years of the first is a moving violation punishable by a $60 fine plus court costs, resulting in a total fine and costs of $128 to $179.

There’s little question that distracted driving plays a significant role in traffic crashes. A frequently cited study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute looked at long-haul trucks for 18 months by outfitting the cabs with video cameras. The study found that when the drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when not texting. The study also measured the time drivers took their eyes from the road to send or receive texts. In the moments before a crash or near crash, drivers typically spent nearly five seconds looking at their devices – enough time at typical highway speeds to cover more than the length of a football field.

“Extensive research shows the dangers of distracted driving,” The Times reported two years ago. “Studies say that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers, and the likelihood that they will crash is equal to that of someone with a .08 percent blood alcohol level, the point at which drivers are generally considered intoxicated. Research also shows that hands-free devices do not eliminate the risks, and may worsen them by suggesting that the behavior is safe. A 2003 Harvard study estimated that cellphone distractions caused 2,600 traffic deaths every year, and 330,000 accidents that result in moderate or severe injuries. Yet Americans have largely ignored that research.”

Here’s how the Florida Highway Patrol defines distracted driving:

  • Eating and drinking
  • An outside person, object or event: animal, a crash scene, or road construction
  • Adjusting a radio, cassette, compact disc player, I-pod or GPS device
  • Other occupant in the vehicle: talking, arguing, or assisting a child
  • A moving object in the vehicle: a pet, an insect, or an object falling off the seat
  • Smoking related: reaching for, lighting, smoking, or dropping a cigarette
  • Cell phone related: dialing, talking, listening, texting or reaching for a cell phone
  • Other device brought into the vehicle: reaching for a water bottle, purse or sun glasses
  • Using a device integral to the vehicle: adjusting mirrors, lights, or seatbelt
  • Other distraction: a medical issue, looking at a map or road sign, sleepy, or fatigue
  • Inattentive or lost in thought

Originally published July 13, 2011.

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17 Responses for “Room for Debate: Should Florida Restrict Cell Use and Texting While Driving?”

  1. intheknow says:

    Florida used to have a population control mechanism that relied on having no barriers between the northbound and southbound or eastbound and westbound lanes of its interstate highways. The result was frequent fatal crashes caused by vehicles crossing the median and running head on into oncoming traffic. Installation of median barriers has cause the rapid decrease in fatalities, not more careful driving.

    Think about it: How can you possibly have a fatal one vehicle accident on US Route 1 in daylight in Flagler County with virtually no traffic on the road? Yet it happens much too frequently.

    We would probably have many fewer fatalities if barriers were put up at the edge of the berm on both sides of the road. But that costs money and so do old people, so Florida is likely to keep some of its old population control mechanisms in place.

  2. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Taking one’s eye off the road while driving is pure stupidity and unfortunately, you can’t legislate against that. The Obama economic depression may be the cause of reduced accidents. There are definitely fewer vehicles on the highways, especially the big rigs and not only here in Florida. We just came back from a trip north and found there was less traffic everywhere we went.

  3. palmcoaster says:

    My reply to this head line is YES!

  4. Atilla says:

    A comedian said “You can’t fix stupid”. I laugh and cry every time we make it a law to force people to do the sensible thing and not make dumb decisions. I applauded when helmets were no longer required for motorcycle riders. I will not ride a bicycle with out a helmet and never needed a law to tell me I could not drive and balance my checkbook at the same time. Except to protect me from common sense impaired individuals who will not likely heed the law anyhow, I see no gain in passing or trying to enforce another law.

  5. Bob Z. says:

    One can usually tell when they are following a driver using a cell phone since the vehicle oftens moves around in their lane, makes sudden stops, uses their brakes too early or late, etc. NY State has had a similiar law for years and most agree it helps: Florida should do the same.

  6. Prescient33 says:

    Recent studies taken in states that ban both have shown the laws prohibiting cell phone use and texting have NO measurable impact on accident rates. To impose a new law that has been shown to be ineffectual in other jurisdictions would be folly at best.
    Distractions in driving exist, have existed, and will exist as long as we permit humans with all their foibles operate automobiles.
    Wasn’t it supposed to have been Confucius that said, “he who kisses while driving doesn’t give the kiss the attention it deserves?” Can’t we update that to read “texts” and “text” to fit our present needs?

  7. Silly says:

    Just another way for the state to make money. The same people are going to text and talk on the phone regargless of what the state says. Those same people will now be paying even less attention to the road because they will be looking for police cars so they dont get caught on their phones. There are laws about speeding but everyday you drive down the road you see someone pulled over for going over the speed limit. Whoever said “you cant fix stupid” hit the nail on the head.

  8. kmedley says:

    If legislation is the answer, then why not tie the punishment to loss of cell phone privileges, too, in addition to fines and other punishment. I’m not saying legislation will in anyway stop this portion of distracted driving, I just think sometimes punishment should coincide more with the crime. I agree with others in that distracted driving has been around since riding a horse was the primary source of transportation.

  9. Craig says:

    They shouldn’t have to, but it’s clear that it impedes safe driving. Yesterday, I was behind a driver who was flicking ashes from her cigarette out the window (must think it’s ok since the burn ban has been lifted) and weaving. When I passed her, she had her phone at the bottom of the wheel, head down, making a left-hand turn. Can’t tell you how many times people weave because they’re focused on their phones.

    I think they should pass a law. If it’s proven that their erratic driving is caused by their phone use, then the fine should be higher than just whatever ticket could be issued for “bad” driving.

    To me, it’s like — to a lesser degree — driving while under the influence.

  10. Erik Wood says:

    I think we live in a culture where business people need to ‘hit the ball over the net’. Teens consider it rude not to reply immediately to texts. Home schedules would grind to a halt without immediate communication. We are conditioned to pursue this level of efficiency but we are all supposed cease this behavior once we sit in our respective 5,000 pound pieces of steel and glass. Anyone can win an argument in a forum like this by saying “Just put the phone away” – but we can see its just not happening.

    I just read that 72% of teens text daily – many text more 4000 times a month. New college students no longer have email addresses! They use texting and Facebook – even with their professors. This text and drive issue is in its infancy and I think we need to do more than legislate.

    I decided to do something about distracted driving after my three year old daughter was nearly run down right in front of me by a texting driver. Instead of a shackle that locks down phones and alienates the user (especially teens) I built a tool called OTTER that is a simple GPS based texting auto reply app for smartphones. It also silences call ringtones while driving unless you have a bluetooth enabled. I think if we can empower the individual then change will come to our highways now and not just our laws.

    Erik Wood, owner
    OTTER app

  11. Liana G says:

    In some of my kids previous schools cell phones signals were disabled inside the buildings. A texting while driving ban makes sense too.

    We have a law telling us what side of the road to drive on. I hate to imagine the carnage if that wasn’t in place. If DUI was legal, imagine the fatalities. I consider texting to be worse because of that one potentially fully distracting text. With DUI’s people at least try their darnest to concentrate and stay focus even more.

  12. Gia says:

    Most accidents are the result of idiots texting while driving, not paying attention to the road. Distraction. Then insurance goes up because too many accidents created by these stupid ignorant drivers.

    • FlaglerLive says:

      Gia, while the Florida Highway Patrol’s reporting method is changing to better reflect and define distracted driving in the age of cell phones (and while this in no way diminishes the recklessness of distracted driving), the numbers still show that other reasons are ahead distracted driving in causing crashes. From our story a couple of months back: “Careless driving is the leading cause of crashes, with 18.6 percent of all fatal crashes related to careless driving, and 40 percent of crashes with injuries. Alcohol is the second-leading cause, with 14.85 percent of fatal crashes involving alcohol. Speeding was involved in almost 12 percent of fatal crashes. “Driver distraction” involved less than 1 percent of fatal crashes.” You can see the full story and the original, detailed report, here.

      • Doug Chozianin says:

        I’ve driven next to drivers who text. They swerve all over the place.
        Driver license suspension (not just a fine) for texting and driving is in oder.

        As for talking on a cell phone while driving, it’s difficult to separate that from listening to the radio or having an argle-bargle with fellow passengers.

  13. roco says:

    YES YES YES Both cells and texting should be banned while driving.. Some people say it’s difficult to inforce but as a Marine when it’s difficult we do it right away and if it’s impossible it might take a little longer.. We have to start somewhere instead of hiding and dancing around the issue.. The politicians should MAKE A LAW .. That’s what you’re getting paid for..

  14. Helene says:

    Hmmm, Flagler Live: Tell your 1% distraction statistic to the family of Josefina Reid. I’m sure it would be little consolation. And just a thought – so if the leading cause of crashes is “careless driving”, what is distracted driving if not careless (especially since Florida does not delineate between careless and distracted.

    All I know is that when a person gets behind the wheel of a car, freedom should go out the window. “Driving is a priviledge and not a right”. Essentially, a car is a moving weapon. No one has the right to be distracted or careless when someone else’s life is at stake.

    In the words of the immortal Doors, “Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel!”

  15. BW says:

    I don’t care for the wording of the legislation. Hands-free headsets allow for safe driving but this wording would ban even that. It could also be construed as “big government” for the conservatively-inclined. Now some may argue that even speaking on a hands-free device is “distracting” to which the logical replay is “So you do not speak to others if they are in the car when you are driving?” Yes, it’s stupid and dangerous to text or surf the web while driving so cut it out and be responsible. Do we really need another law?

    The legislation I really don’t care for . . . the seatbelt law. People are in a huge uproar over redlight cameras, but no one ever raises a finger about the unconstitutional seatbelt law. Seatbelts are a choice. They have absolutely nothing to do with the safety of others and only personal safety which is the individual’s choice. If an insurance carrier chooses not to cover an individual’s accident due to not wearing one, that’s the service you have chosen to pay for. The police should not be able to pull someone over for not wearing one and there shouldn’t be any fine allowed in regards to seatbelts.

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