Florida has finally joined the fight against texting while driving. A watered-down texting ban passed by state lawmakers in May goes into effect Tuesday, subjecting first-time offenders to a $30 fine.
While the new law lacks teeth and is difficult to enforce, it signals a breakthrough in a state that has lagged behind most of the nation when it comes to protecting motorists from this reckless behavior.
Until now, Florida was among only five states in the nation without any kind of texting ban.
We hope state lawmakers will seize the momentum and pass even tougher laws during the legislative session this coming March. State Sen. Maria Sachs, a Democrat from Delray Beach and ardent advocate of texting bans, will mark the effective date for the new law by filing a stricter texting bill for lawmakers to consider.
She wants to make texting while driving a primary offense, meaning police can stop a driver they see texting while driving. The current law taking effect Tuesday is a secondary offense, meaning offenders can only be cited for texting after being pulled over for other offenses, such as speeding or reckless driving.
That’s but one of the new law’s shortcomings. The law allows texting while stopped in traffic, and it limits the circumstances when police can examine an offender’s cellphone for evidence.
As state lawmakers dawdled over stricter bans the past several years, a mountain of evidence was accumulating that shows the dangers of using hand-held devices while driving.
Government statistics show as many as 3,300 people died in 2011 as a result of accidents involving distracted driving, which includes both talking and texting. Another 387,000 people were injured. An academic study concluded that texting creates a crash risk 23 times greater than driving while not distracted.
Every year, an estimated 100,000 accidents are attributable to texting.
Those statistics have attracted some unlikely advocates for texting bans. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile spend a lot of money getting people to use their products. But the risks of texting while driving have proven too great for the telecommunications giants to ignore.
The companies have banded together to spend millions of dollars on a public service campaign to educate drivers about the dangers of texting while driving.
As AT&T global marketing officer Cathy Couglin told the Dallas Morning News, “This is one of those issues where everybody says, ‘We have a responsibility here.’ ”
So do Florida lawmakers, who should put aside the tired arguments about government intrusion and join other states with tough texting laws.
According to a government survey, at any given moment during the day in this country as many as 660,000 drivers are talking or texting or otherwise using a mobile device while driving.
Changing that behavior won’t be easy. But state lawmakers can help by passing laws that impose tough restrictions and meaningful fines, and that give law enforcement the tools needed to deter offenders.