Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Texting and driving ban not tough enough

It took a frustrating five years, but, finally, texting while driving is officially banned in the Sunshine State. The ban, along with several other new laws, went on the books Tuesday, and while critics say it is too weak to become an effective public-safety tool, its supporters say that at least it is a good start. Maybe so, but we’ll only know how good this new ban is after it’s been in enforced for a while.

The major weakness is that the Legislature made texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning texting drivers can only be ticketed if they are pulled over for another traffic violation. And the law also has exemptions for drivers using GPS devices, talk-to-text technology and for reporting criminal behavior. Even more — the law allows drivers to text while stopped for red lights and such. The penalty for a first violation is a mere $30.

So quite a few gaps could make this ban a nearly toothless tiger, say its critics.

One such critic is state Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who announced on Tuesday that she will file a bill in the 2014 legislative session that would make texting while driving a primary traffic offense so law enforcement officers could pull over drivers they see texting while their vehicles are moving. Good for the determined Ms. Sachs.

Florida is now one of 41 states to ban texting while driving, but only one of four that make it a secondary traffic infraction. Iowa is another of those four, and, according to the AAA, there were only 119 convictions for texting while driving in its first year in effect there. Imagine how frustrating it is for a police officer to see someone driving while texting, but being unable to pull over the driver because of the ban’s big loophole.

Still, one of the new law’s champions is the Florida Highway Patrol, which says the important thing is that the texting ban is now on the books. According to an FHP spokesman, 11 percent of fatal crashes where the driver was under 20 were caused by distracted driving — and one in five of the teen drivers involved in a fatal accident was talking or texting on a cell phone. From 2010 to 2011, at least 85 crashes caused by distracted drivers turned fatal in Florida, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There’s no way of knowing how many minor but avoidable collisions are caused by distracted drivers.

The FHP is commendably reaching out to students in high schools around the state to educate them about the new ban. Such outreach is greatly needed. Texting among teens is ubiquitous these days.

Ms. Sachs, a former prosecutor, says that using a cell phone while driving a car “is more dangerous than alcohol, especially for young drivers.” We would modify that statement to say that driving and drinking, and driving and texting are equally dangerous — and not just for teens, but for all drivers in the state.

So in 2014, the Legislature should take the next step to increase safety on Florida’s roads and streets by adopting Sen. Sachs’ tougher texting-while-driving sanctions. This is, after all, a matter of life and death.

Who can honestly say that they haven’t seen another driver distracted by a cell phone while on the road? Or, for that matter, have found themselves distracted by their own electronic gadgets while driving? Driving is a full-time occupation requiring concentration and alertness at all times.

Texting and driving has become as lethal a mix as drinking and driving and should be treated equally seriously by the Legislature.

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