Florida drivers are among the most dangerous menaces on the road, ranking second-worst in the nation for being distracted while behind the wheel, according to a study of driving habits.
Florida’s score was 49th, ahead of only Louisiana in a state-by-state analysis that indicated that 92 percent of U.S. drivers with cellphones use them while moving in a car.
“Those are shocking numbers proving we have a lot of careless and complacent drivers out there,” said Ryan Ruffing, director of communications for EverQuote, which collected the data. “Traffic fatalities have increased the past two years, and phone use is a primary reason.”
Florida’s notoriously bad drivers ranked 39th in overall driving safety, while up in Montana’s wide-open spaces, drivers ranked No. 1. By region, Midwesterners are the safest drivers, confirming their reputation as the nicest Americans, while edgy Northeasterners negotiating the roads of their dense cities are the least-safe. Southern drivers use their phones the most, on 41 percent of all trips.
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On the other end of the spectrum from phone-addicted Floridians are Vermonters, who rank as the nation’s least-distracted drivers. They live in the second-least-populous state.
It’s never a good time to text, talk, type, tweet, surf, chat, check Facebook or take selfies in the car, but especially not during April, which is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. It’s also the spring session of the Florida Legislature, in which lawmakers are considering bills that would toughen phone-use penalties.
Florida is one of only four states that does not make texting while driving a primary offense, which means that police cannot cite drivers for texting unless they stop them for another infraction, such as speeding. Texting has been a secondary offense in Florida since 2013.
One bill that would toughen penalties is sponsored by state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and has received heavy lobbying from Miami high school junior Mark Merwitzer, who is particularly concerned about his distracted teen peers. The American Automobile Association recommends a ban on wireless devices for all drivers under age 18.
It’s no coincidence that states with strict laws — such as Vermont — have the lowest distracted driving rates, Ruffing said.
“It seems clear that law enforcement is effective because there is a correlation between the prohibition of phone use and safer driving,” Ruffing said.
If you think you can text or check emails and still maintain control of your car, you are wrong. Each day in the U.S., eight people are killed and 1,161 are injured in crashes that involve a distracted driver, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you think using your phone does not impair cognitive function, you are wrong again. If texting distracts you for five seconds at 55 mph, you are essentially driving the entire length of a football field with your eyes closed, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Phone use causes a lingering diversion or “latency effect” for 27 seconds after you’ve stopped texting or talking, according to research by the American Automobile Association, which cautions that “distracted driving is deadly behavior, and hands-free does not mean brain-free.” AAA found that 60 percent of teen crashes are caused by distracted driving.
“Our horrible traffic, the awful accidents you see everywhere — so much of it is due to texting,” said Carmen Caldwell, who has lived in South Florida for 50 years. She is executive director of Citizens’ Crime Watch of Miami-Dade County and forbids her staff members from texting on the road. “It can take me an hour to drive the four miles from work in Doral to home in Hialeah. My brother lives in Idaho, and he thinks I’m kidding. Today, I was behind a fool in a Mercedes on the Palmetto driving with the left hand and texting with the right.
“Part of our issue here is that we have a lot of drivers from a lot of other countries.”
Ruffing said that 96 percent of drivers believe they are safe drivers, but 56 percent of them admitted to phone use, creating an “awareness gap.”
“It only takes a second to cause a wreck, and it’s frightening that people think they have it under control,” Caldwell said. “Police officers should be able to stop someone for texting the same way they can stop you for not wearing your seatbelt.”
One way to prevent distracted driving is to pressure the driver to stop using the phone, according to research commissioned by AT&T that revealed that 57 percent of people will not text if a friend or passenger asks them not to do it. AT&T has launched two campaigns to encourage drivers to change what many admit is a compulsion. Take the pledge at itcanwait.com. Or load the free AT&T DriveMode app to break the texting habit.
“Our goal with the It Can Wait public awareness campaign and #TagYourHalf is to help save lives,” said AT&T spokesperson Kelly Layne Starling. “And now more than ever, we’re calling on the public, law enforcement, educators, retailers, corporations, consumer-safety groups and more to join the movement to help raise awareness of the dangers of smartphone use behind the wheel.”
EverQuote collected data on 20 million trips and 230 million miles driven with its EverDrive app that encourages safe driving and improved driving skills by scoring drivers on phone use, speeding, risky acceleration, hard braking and hard turns.