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Texting while operating a motor vehicle is a secondary offense in Florida, meaning police need to witness drivers committing other infractions, such as swerving and speeding, before pulling them over for distracted driving. (Photo illustration by Jesse Scheckner/SFNS)
Texting while operating a motor vehicle is a secondary offense in Florida, meaning police need to witness drivers committing other infractions, such as swerving and speeding, before pulling them over for distracted driving. (Photo illustration by Jesse Scheckner/SFNS)

Distracted driving remains a problem in Florida despite laws

It’s been four years since texting while driving in Florida was banned, but according to one study, the state is second-worst in the nation when it comes to phone use behind the wheel.

Florida ranks behind only Louisiana for distracted driving, according to the EverDrive Safe Driving Report, which gave Sunshine State motorists 37th place overall for driving skills.

According to state records, vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle fatalities on roadways increased more than 31 percent from 2013 to 2016.

By Jesse Scheckner
South Florida News Service
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“There are more tragic collisions taking place because, everywhere you look, someone’s on their cellphone,” said Ira H. Leesfield, a personal injury attorney based in Miami.

Leesfield, who has been in practice for more than 40 years, said he started noticing an uptick in distracted driving accidents seven years ago. He’s since published numerous national articles calling for stricter legislation.

“I think the Florida legislature, like every other major state, needs to have laws that more strongly discourage cellphone use, but they just refuse,” he said.

Approximately 660,000 Floridians use electronic devices while operating motor vehicles every day, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. Last year, that figure translated into almost 50,000 distracted driving-related crashes—an increase of 26 percent since 2013.

In 2013, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that prohibited driving while manually “texting, e-mailing, and instant messaging” character-based messages. Enacting the law was an uphill battle and an unlikely victory, but not one without concessions.

“We had nothing up until that point,” said Rep. Richard Stark (D-Weston). “Every year, the legislature tried to come up with something, only to see it fail. The bill passed that year because, at the time, Florida trailed behind the rest of the country in banning texting while driving.”

But the law, according to its critics, has a major problem: It made distracted driving a secondary offense, meaning police can’t pull drivers over for texting alone but must witness primary infractions like speeding, swerving or not wearing a seatbelt before being able to enforce the ban.

Under the law, motorists are also not required to provide law enforcement officials with their phones as evidence, and first-time infractions merit only a $30 citation.

“It takes a lot of teeth out of the bill,” said Sen. Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami). “When you talk to law enforcement, they [say] they’re perfectly capable of enforcing a primary offense statute. And when you talk to safety professionals, it’s pretty clear what we need.”

Bills elevating distracted driving from a secondary to a primary offense have been introduced every year, but nothing has reached the governor’s desk. This year, four such attempts died in subcommittees before May 5.

This is partly because of opposition from several members of the state legislature who believe it infringes on privacy and freedom. Principle among them is Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami), who is set to become Speaker of the House in 2018.

Oliva said he was responsible for the amendment to the 2013 bill making it illegal for police to search mobile devices, saying it would cause friction between officers and citizens.

“Writing a law means that there is a clear problem and a clear solution,” he said. “I think here we have a problem that is fully embedded in the ambiguity of everything else your phone can do. If someone is putting on lipstick, reaching for change or dropped their cigarette and it’s burning them, those aren’t technological things. But they all cause the same problem.”

Another reason new legislation has yet to pass is due to objection from the Florida Conference of Black Legislators, whose members, according to Stark, have expressed concern that tougher texting laws may embolden racial profiling by law enforcement.

“Black people are being pulled over disproportionately, and I want to be an ally,” he said, adding he understands their concerns.

Stark said he is working on legislation which will require officers to denote the race of whomever they pull over and input the information into a database to be analyzed annually to detect trends of racial profiling.

While Oliva disagrees about the prevalence of racial profiling, he said stricter texting and driving legislation would lead to greater conflict in areas with strained police and community relations.

“By statistics alone, if certain animosities exist between a community and its law enforcement, whether law enforcement is acting properly or not, additional interactions mean additional conflicts, and I don’t see that as being beneficial,” he said.

Members of the Florida Conference of Black Legislators did not respond to requests for comment.

Overall, traffic fatalities in Florida have grown by 18 percent in the last two years. The increase for teenagers, however, was almost 30 percent.

“We’ve seen [every kind of accident], from the simplest to the most horrific,” said Miami-Dade Police Det. Argemis Colome. “Not all over them are caused by text messaging, but I’m sure there is a contributing number now.”

To combat this, the FDOT runs “Put it Down,” a seasonal campaign that sends representatives to schools in the fall to speak with students about the dangers of distracted driving. The program also uses social media and electronic signs on roadways to spread awareness.

“Every driver in South Florida is affected by distracted driving,” said Carlos Sarmiento, FDOT’s community traffic safety programs coordinator. “Our primary audience is our younger drivers, ages 16-24, but we’ve made sure the campaign messaging transcends the younger drivers and really reaches everyone.”

However, many believe proactive messaging and enforcement predicated on other offenses is insufficient. Jen Shavers, 35, said she was the victim of hit-and-run crashes in 2008 and 2011. On both occasions, the drivers had been using their smartphones.

“I definitely think it’s the new norm,” she said. “Maybe if they changed some of the legislation it would have at least some sort of positive impact. It might not change everybody’s mind, but it could help.”

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