Ira Leesfield, left, and Adam Rose, right, of Leesfield Scolaro in Miami. (Courtesy photos)
It happens on a regular basis. While driving through Miami’s unforgiving traffic, a car drifts into your lane, stops short ahead of you or is driving erratically.
Moments later, you get a look at the driver and see his eyes affixed to the glow of a cell phone in front of the steering wheel. Texting while driving has become an epidemic not only in Miami-Dade County but nationwide, leading to documented, tragic consequences.
Traffic fatalities in Florida are on the rise — increasing by 18 percent from 2014 to 2015 — as are the number of crashes caused by distracted driving. In 2011, distracted drivers were responsible for 21 deaths. By 2015, that number spiked to 216 deaths with an underlying 45,740 distracted driving crashes across the state. Approximately 4,445 of those occurred in Miami-Dade County, resulting in over 3,000 injuries and 16 deaths.
While texting and driving may sound more innocent than, say, drunken driving, it is far more dangerous. A study by the Transport Research Laboratory found that a texting driver’s reaction time was delayed by 37 percent compared with 13 percent for a drunken driver. The critical difference between a texting driver and a drunken driver (not on his phone) is that the drunken driver is at least trying to focus on the road.
Each time a driver sends a text, he takes his eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. That means that a texting driver traveling 55 mph will drive more than a full football field without concentrating on the road. No wonder more than eight people are killed and 1,000 injured every day in the United States because of distracted drivers.
Florida has historically imposed tough driving-under-the-influence laws to crack down on drunken driving but has neglected to act against the more perilous issue of texting while driving.
Unfortunately, the Legislature has been soft in regulating texting while driving. Florida is just one of five states that make the practice a secondary offense. That means that even when a police officer witnesses a driver on his phone, he does not have the authority to stop that car unless he observes the driver committing a separate offense.
As it stands, the law hamstrings law enforcement’s ability to keep the roads safe from a danger surpassing drunken driving. To put this in perspective, imagine that DUI was a secondary offense and that a police officer who positively knew a driver was above the legal limit lacked authority to stop that driver until he commits a traffic offense, or worse, takes a life.
Despite a failed attempt last year by lawmakers to make texting while driving a primary offense, the Legislature is back at it with new bills aimed at controlling the deadly practice.
One bill, House Bill 47, would finally bring Florida in line with most of the nation by making texting while driving a primary offense, meaning that a police officer could pull over a motorist upon observing him on his phone.
Another bill, House Bill 69, seeks only to make texting while driving a primary offense for those under 18. Hardly a solution and more of a fake, this bill ignores the reality that people of all ages use their phones while driving and puts police officers in the impossible position of having to guess a driver’s age before enforcing the law. However, the main problem with HB 69 is that it sanctions texting while driving by treating it as a skill that can be honed with age. (Note: Drivers under 18 are a nonvoting group).
Applying HB 69′s logic to our DUI laws, an overwhelming number of drivers could drive drunk with impunity. If public safety is truly the Legislature’s objective, it must make texting while driving a primary offense and give police the ability to protect Floridians from a known, deadly threat. Anything less assures more carnage and destruction on Florida’s roads.