Florida is one of only five states without any restriction on using a cell phone to text message while driving (the other four are Arizona, Montana, South Carolina and South Dakota), but after this week the state is one step closer joining the majority of states banning the activity.
House Bill 13, which would make text and drive a secondary offense subject to monetary fines and/or point penalties passed unanimously out of the Florida House Transportation subcommittee. This is after the bill’s counterpart in the senate (SB52, sponsored by Senator Nancy Deteret) passed unanimously from its second committee the week before. The progress is a victory for the bill sponsor and co-sponsor, Doug Holder and Ray Pilon, especially considering that they have been unsuccessful in getting any traction on the bill for five years.
Why the support now after years of defeat and denial for a texting while driving ban in Florida?
Forward momentum is credited largely in part to a new effort from insurance, education, legal, medical and automotive lobby.
The ban has been publicly supported by AARP, Florida Sherriff’s Association, Florida Police Chiefs Association, AAA, AT&T and the Florida PTA, automotive makers/dealers and trial attorneys. Some credit the family testimonials from victims of automobile accidents caused by cell phone usage for the unanimous subcommittee passage.
Representative Holder championed the bill as a necessary measurement to insure public safety and reduce automobile crashes caused by inattentive drivers distracted by text messaging.
The ban would be a secondary offense, meaning that a person could only be cited for the violation if they were pulled over for committing a primary traffic offense such as speeding or reckless/careless driving. The penalty would be a $30 fine for the first offense and a $60 fine for a second offense incurred within a five year period.
Additionally, point penalties could be incurred if texting within a school zone (2 points) or if the texting led to a crash (6 points). Texting would still be allowed at red lights, in traffic jams and if pulled off to the side of the road. The bill also exempts police officers and other emergency responders.
Texting while driving bans have grown in popularity over the past ten years, as more and more accidents involving electronic devices have occurred nationwide. In addition to state statutes and city ordinances, President Obama issued an executive order in 2009 banning federal employees from texting while driving while conducting official governmental business.
According to the National Safety Council, there are over 100,000 crashes a year involving electronic device usage that distracts drivers. AAA reports that texting and driving makes a person six times more likely to be involved in a collision; the federal government believes it is even higher- stating it is twenty-three times more likely.
The problem is widespread: one in seven surveyed drivers admitted to texting and driving and half of sixteen and seventeen year old text while driving. Considering the national response to what some call the “electronic safety epidemic”, it seems strange that Florida, the fourth most populous state in the country, has been so reluctant and late coming in legislative action regarding texting while driving.
Especially because a recent study found that 70% of Florida voters favor a ban. Like other states, Florida has documented correlations in cell phone usage and car accidents. According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were 3700 automobile crashes last year involving electronic devices.
Of those 2,218 were from cell phone usage; 145 specifically from texting. Despite the popular response to the proposed ban, critics of the bill have legitimate arguments against its passage. According the several legislators, the bill has been seen as unnecessary legislation.
Under the legal analysis of private liberty versus public interest and safety, opponents believe that the ban is governmental intrusion into personal freedom. They believe that the solution is already available with the enforcement of current careless and reckless driving statutes, not the creation of additional redundant law.
Representatives and Senators who oppose the bill are also concerned that there are no recent data documenting a need for the ban. The most recent information from state safety agencies (cited above) are from the first ten months of 2011.
Bolstering the opposition’s argument is a 2010 Highway Loss Data Institute study showing that bans do not prevent crashes, they actually increase them.
According to the study, banning the activity does not make the drivers stop the activity; it only makes them hide what they are doing more so they are not seen texting.
By lowering the cell phone the driver is more distracted as they struggle to focus on the more distant device. Supporters of the bill challenge the strength of the opposition’s arguments, believing that public safety is the larger concern considering the large numbers of automobile accidents.
Applying the same legal analysis used by the opponents, supporters believe public safety outweighs personal liberty in this situation due to the large amount of injuries and fatalities reported. They also feel that data from 2011 is sufficiently representative of the situation in 2012; chances are that the number of traffic incidents only increased within that one year time period.
Despite this week’s success in the legislature, the bill still has hurdles to overcome before the bill becomes law. There are still a few committees and overall House approval is required. If the current trend is any indication, it appears that Florida drivers will soon have to reserve texting for times outside the vehicle, telling their contacts that they will TTYL. LOL.