TAMPA — Drivers who blast down the road with one hand on the wheel and the other punching away at a cellphone keyboard are everywhere. That’s why Florida lawmakers last year made texting while driving a civil offense.
But critics say legislators didn’t go the full measure when they made the infraction a secondary offense rather than a primary one.
Safe driving advocates had pushed for a law that would allow police to pull over anyone they saw texting while driving, the same way an officer can stop a motorist not wearing a seatbelt. They argued that a law in which texting was a secondary offense, meaning a driver would have to also commit another infraction like speeding, would have no real teeth.
That could explain why so few texting-while-driving tickets have been written since the law went into effect in October.
In the first three months after the law went into effect on Oct. 1, only 17 texting citations have been issued in Hillsborough County, which has a population of almost 1.3 million. Across the state’s 67 counties, about 400 people have been given tickets; in Hillsborough County, the fine is slightly more than $100.
Seven of the 17 tickets issued in Hillsborough County were given out by the Tampa Police Department, all of them by the same man: motorcycle officer Curtis Bascom. He has reported that at times he has cruised for several blocks alongside text-reading and message-sending drivers who were so distracted that they were unaware they were being watched by a uniformed officer in the next lane.
Bascom declined a request for an interview, but police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said the officer knows how dangerous texting while driving can be.
“He’s seen way too many wrecks, way too many injuries and way too many deaths and he believes a lot of that is related to texting and driving,” she said. “Knocking on someone’s door to tell them that a person they love has been killed is the worst part of the job.”
Bascom is a traffic officer and writing tickets “is all he does,” she said.
“He believes that every time he issues a citation,” she said, “it changes someone’s behavior. And studies show that tickets do change people’s driving behavior for up to a year at least.”
The drivers he pulls over and cites are only a fraction of those he spots texting while behind the wheel, Davis said. “He sees dozens of people texting and driving,” she said, “but he can’t prove it and he can’t pull them over” because they haven’t committed another driving infraction.
Most of those cited by Bascom were stopped for seatbelt violations, Davis said.
Often, Bascom pulls up his Harley Davidson next to texting motorists. “If you don’t notice you are driving next to a police officer on a motorcycle and he is watching you, you clearly are too distracted by texting,” Davis said.
Of the 10 other tickets handed out in Hillsborough County, eight were written by Florida Highway Patrol troopers. A Tampa International Airport police officer wrote one, as did a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy. In Pasco County, eight citations were issued, three from Highway Patrol troopers and five from sheriff’s deputies. Pinellas County numbers were not available.
It took 14 days in October before the first texting-while-driving citation in Hillsborough County was issued. The county’s first-ever ticket went to Emilse Moclair, who says she was innocent.
“I don’t think I was texting,” she said this week. “I was speaking on the phone at the time.”
A real estate agent, she constantly is in her car, driving to different locations and meeting customers. She said she was arranging a meeting when she was pulled over by a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.
“The situation is that I cannot prove it,” she said. “I couldn’t get my phone records, but I wasn’t texting.”
She paid the $103 fine and said the experience did change her driving behavior.
“As soon as I get into my car,” she said, “I get off the phone.”
Already, there is a move in the Florida Legislature to upgrade the offense to one that police can cite without requiring another reason to stop a driver.
Florida Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs, D-Delray Beach, has introduced a bill in the Senate that would make the texting ban a primary offense.
“I voted for the first bill that is now law,” she said. “It was a step in the right direction. As a former prosecutor, I know it is difficult for law enforcement officers to catch people, and the law as it is now really is unenforceable.
“You have got to be very close to a person to see whether or not they have cellphones up to their face,” she said. “It’s a dangerous action itself, to text and drive, and people who do that should be pulled over and given a citation.”
She said the seatbelt law followed the same path through the Legislature, though it was seven years before that statute moved from being a secondary offense to a primary offense. Now, she said, seatbelt use is part of the driving culture. Almost everyone, she said, straps a seatbelt on when they get into a car.
“We want to create the same type of habit with texting,” Sachs said. “When you get into the car, you don’t use your cellphone.”
Whether the law is changing driving behavior remains to be seen. A recent survey in Connecticut, which in 2006 became the first state in the country to pass a texting ban, found that while 90 percent of those questioned knew texting while driving was illegal, less than 20 percent of those who admitted to texting were willing to stop.
Connecticut law enforcement officers have handed out some 117,000 cellphone and distracted-driving citations since the law went into effect.
“Basically, our take is that texting while driving is a dangerous act, but our research has not shown any evidence that bans are very effective with dealing with the problem,” said Kristin Nevels, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Texting is just another form of distracted driving, and that’s something that’s been on the roads forever.”
She said more should be done to educate drivers about distracted driving in general.
Distracted driving, she said, could be fussing with the radio, speeding, eating, reading or “screaming at your kids in the back seat.”
“The biggest thing is to keep your eyes on the road,” she said, “keep focused on the road at all times.”
Besides the hit a wallet or purse could take, texting ban proponents use the safety issue as the main point in their argument, hoping to convince drivers it is too dangerous to text while driving. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says texting drivers avert their eyes from the road for almost five seconds. At 55 mph, a driver can cross more than the equivalent of a football field without looking up while writing or reading a text.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates one of every four traffic crashes in the United States — about 1.3 million — involve cellphone use, and that at least 100,000 of those are related to drivers who are texting.
Of more than a quarter of a million traffic crashes on Florida’s highways in 2011, nearly 5,000 involved drivers who were texting or using some sort of “electronic communication device,” according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Still, Florida lawmakers debated the issue for four years before passing the ban in 2012. Each time, proposals fell to the opposition of House Republicans, whose conservative members voiced concerns about government intrusion into people’s lives.
Before the bill passed last year, the House added a provision that allows police to use drivers’ mobile phone records against them only if texting causes a fatal crash.
Lawmakers also included other exemptions, including ones for drivers who are reporting an emergency or criminal behavior, or who are monitoring emergency situations such as traffic or weather alerts. The law also exempts using navigational devices like GPS.
Florida became the 41st state to adopt a texting-while-driving ban since Connecticut passed the first such law eight years ago. Thirty-seven of the 41 states made texting while driving a primary offense, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
So far, the number of texting tickets written by Florida law enforcement officers stands at about 400, according to the Uniform Traffic Citation Report issued by the Florida Highway Patrol. Sachs said the reason the numbers are so low is because the ban is a secondary offense.
“We know now that we need to up the ante,” she said, “and make this a primary offense. If you leave it up to the people of Florida, they want it now.”