As Florida's children return to school this fall, so will drivers caught speeding by school buses and committing other dangerous infractions.
State law already forces drivers found guilty twice in one year of running a red light to attend a state-approved driver improvement course. Starting Oct. 1, a new law will force even first-time offenders to take the course - as well as those found guilty of failing to stop for a school bus, highway racing or reckless driving.
Currently, drivers found guilty of moving violations or reckless driving have the option of returning to traffic school to prevent their insurance rates from increasing and points from accumulating on their driving records. The new law will make it mandatory; those who do not take the required course within 90 days of receiving notice of the order will lose their license until they do.
The same legislation also adds a $65 fine to existing penalties for highway racing, reckless driving and zooming past stopped school buses - money that the state will spend on trauma centers. House sponsor Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, said the idea was to make traffic offenders likeliest to cause serious bodily harm to help pay for medical care.
Reckless driving is on the list of targeted violations, said Kreegel, a physician who specializes in emergency medicine, because many drivers charged with drunk driving escape tough penalties for that crime by pleading to the lesser offense. "We put the surcharge on the plea-bargain position of reckless driving so they can't slip through the net, just by having the best lawyer."
The law is part of a broader trend in Florida and around the country of beefing up penalties for dangerous driving. David Westberry, spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, compared it to recent increases in penalties for drunk driving, which can lead to thousands of dollars in fines and imprisonment. "It's raising the bar, if you will."
That bar ratchets up again next year, when another law targeting bad drivers takes effect. Starting Jan. 1, drivers found at fault in three crashes over a three-year period will lose their license unless they pass both a state-approved driver improvement course and a driving test.
The course must include behind-the-wheel instruction - a unique requirement that does not apply in other kinds of traffic cases. The mandate is so new, in fact, that DHSMV is still developing a curriculum for such a comprehensive course, which is expected to cost offenders $300-$500 at a commercial driving school. By comparison, basic driver improvement courses currently cost $30-$50 on average.
When it goes into effect the new law will count crashes as far back as 2008. In other words, drivers already convicted of causing two crashes since Jan. 1, 2008 will have to take the remedial driving course and pass a driving test if they are at fault in a crash in 2010. If the offender fails to take the course within 90 days of receiving the court's order, his or her license will be canceled until the course is completed successfully.
"I think probably all of us have someone in our family who has been a victim of a crash that was unnecessary, that was caused by carelessness," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who introduced the measure last spring. "When careless actions lead to chronic crashes, we have to do something to get the attention of these drivers."
The new law could affect several thousand Florida drivers, if recent crash statistics are any indication. According to the state DHSMV, there were 3,277 drivers with three or more at-fault crashes during the three-year period ending December 31, 2008.
Legislative staff and the DHSMV predicted that the state will reap little money as a result of the law change -- $9.205 over three years because of the 2.50 assessment fee that driving schools collect for deposit into the Highway Safety Operating Trust Fund.
Jason Mayberry, a defense attorney in Tampa, thinks the state could see a lot more money than that.
For a variety of reasons, he said, many defendants overlook or never receive notices that their licenses may be revoked or suspended. When that happens, he said, they have to pay one or more fees to get their licenses reinstated. "That's one more way for the state to get more money."
Mayberry also raised concerns about the predicted high cost of driving courses with behind-the-wheel instruction, once they become available.
"Five-hundred dollars is a lot of money," he said. "That could be prohibitive for 30 percent of our population, because they don't have the money or may have lost their job because of the economy. It's circular reasoning - 'If I can't go to work to make money, I can't take the driving course. But if I can't take the driving course, I can't legally drive to work to make money.'"
But Westberry, of the DMSV praised the measure as supporting department initiatives to make Florida's roads safer. "These drivers represent a wide spectrum of our population - not just the young and inexperienced. These individuals have proven themselves to be bad drivers, and their driving records reflect numerous driving infractions and a pattern of poor decision making."
All told, there were 256,208 crashes in Florida in 2007, resulting in 3,221 fatalities. In 2008, there were 243,342 crashes, causing 2,983 deaths, according to DHSMV data.
Yoli Buss, director of driver improvement programs for AAA South, said Florida is one of many states raising the stakes for problem drivers.
"If we look at the statistics over the years, the numbers haven't changed much," said Buss, who works in AAA's Tampa office. "The numbers of crashes and deaths remain more or less the same. We have to do something to bring these numbers down."
New laws taking effect this year and next will stiffen penalties for dangerous driving and force more offenders back to driving school. Those who cause three crashes in three years will also have to pass a driving test.
Recent statistics on problem driving:
• 3,277 Florida drivers were convicted in 3+ crashes during the 3-year period ending December 31, 2008.
• Of those, 288 were from Pinellas County
• 258 were from Hillsborough County
• 109 were from Pasco County
• 36 percent were ages 16-25
• 27 percent were ages 26-40
• 29 percent were ages 41-65
• 7 percent were age 66+
• 11 percent were involved in 4+ crashes
• 11 percent had at least one DUI
• 18 percent were convicted of knowingly driving with a suspended or revoked license
• 15 percent were convicted of 10 or more violations
• In 2008 alone, there were 243,342 crashes, resulting in 2,983 fatalities.
• 76 deaths resulted from crashes in 2008 caused by drivers disregarding traffic signals.
• Since October 2008, two red light cameras have triggered 20,021 notices of signal violations in the city of Temple Terrace alone.
Source: Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Temple Terrace Police Department