A car moves unsteadily down the road. Or glides through a stop sign. Or fails to accelerate when a light turns green. Or collides with another car.
Why? We know why. Because the driver is texting. The driver is too preoccupied by his or her phone to pay attention to the world outside his or her car.
Police observe this sort of unresponsible, dangerous behavior all the time. Yet they cannot pull the offending motorist over and write a ticket.
Why? Because Florida is one of only four states in the nation that have not made texting while driving a primary offense. It’s only a secondary one, which means a cop has to have a reason to cite someone for another violation, like speeding, before they can cite them for texting.
For the past five years, bills to toughen the texting law have been introduced in the Florida Legislature. Each year, they’ve failed, despite alarming statistics that show accidents caused by distracted driving have increased 25 percent in the state since 2013, to a total of 49,231 last year, resulting in 235 fatalities. There’s an average of 12.2 distracted driving accidents per day in Miami-Dade County. Florida drivers rank second worst in the nation for being distracted behind the wheel, ahead of only Louisiana drivers.
Will 2018 finally be the year the Sunshine State cracks down on texting junkies? A coalition called FL DNT TXT N DRV, supported by 80 groups representing police, municipalities, insurance companies, parents, students, doctors, retirees and businesses, is lobbying hard for a restrictive law that would give police more enforcement power.
“We’re getting close because police chiefs have raised texting to their No. 1 issue this session,” said Keyna Cory, coalition coordinator. “People realize we are constantly dodging texters on our streets. We are hearing from victims’ families about preventable deaths and injuries.”
Not surprisingly, Florida — the Anything Goes state — lags behind. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., abide by a total ban on the use of mobile devices while driving. You could get slapped with a $200 fine just for having a phone in your hand.
Under the proposed Florida law, offenders would be subjected to a $30 fine. If texting causes a crash, the driver would be assessed six points.
“Texting while driving has become socially acceptable, and it’s time to say we will no longer tolerate this deadly practice,” said state Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, a sponsor of the House bill.
How bad is it? You’ve seen drivers going 60 mph on I-95 performing a reckless juggling act with phone and steering wheel. You’ve seen drivers with both hands on the phone steering with their knees. You’ve seen drivers with their eyes glued to their lap. You’ve done it yourself.
“People come to Florida and think they are in a different country,” Slosberg said.
Florida’s libertarian mind-set and the idea that the car is the driver’s private domain have stymied passage of the law, Slosberg and Cory said.
“Look, you don’t have the liberty to drink and drive, you don’t have the liberty to swerve into my lane, you don’t have the liberty to kill people,” Slosberg said.
Said Cory: “This state doesn’t move fast on certain things. It took us 10 years to get the seat belt law, but once we did, compliance skyrocketed.”
Property Casualty Insurers Association of America regional manager Logan McFaddin calls Florida’s lack of action “mind-boggling.” Research shows that five seconds of distraction at 55 mph means you are driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed. The lingering diversion, or “latency effect,” lasts up to 27 seconds after you text. AAA found that 60 percent of teen crashes are caused by distracted driving.
Most opposition to the texting law comes from those who do it and don’t want to stop, but there is also reluctance among black legislators who fear it could lead to more racial profiling and police violence during traffic stops.
“Law enforcement would have to compile reports so we can track to see if demographics for the citations are out of whack, which they do now for the seat belt law,” said Cory, who spoke to black caucus members of the Legislature Tuesday night in Tallahassee.
Texting while driving is a compulsion, according to a study by psychiatrist Dr. David Greenfield at the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. Our brains have become conditioned to seek a positive hit of dopamine — which he calls the “digital drug” — from our messaging habits. Although 98 percent of the people he surveyed said they know texting while driving is dangerous, they rationalize their behavior, a classic sign of addiction, he said. AT&T supports breaking the habit through its It Can Wait campaign.
“People are like Pavlov’s dogs, and our young people are even more addicted,” Cory said. “Nothing is that important. It only takes a second to cause a crash. You cannot do both things at the same time no matter how hard you try.”