Some claim victory to a dangerous practice, others complain the law is too weak. State officials have generally been quiet about the whole thing.
According to Distraction.gov, a U.S. Government website dedicated to educating the public about distracted driving, particularly cell phone use and texting while driving, at any given moment in America, 660,000 drivers are using a cell phone or an electronic device while hurtling down roads filled with traffic, bicycle riders, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Despite increasing public campaigns to stop texting and driving, that statistic has held steady since 2010.
On Oct. 1, Florida will become the 41st state to ban the practice of texting while driving. Some have labeled the ban as a first step, others have described the new law as weak and difficult to enforce, but for those who still text and drive, the fact remains that, at least while a vehicle is in motion, it will be illegal for a driver to send a text message, with some exceptions.
At this time, the state of Florida appears to be making little effort to educate the public about the new law, beyond plans to post warnings about texting and driving on overhead freeway message signs. Last week, overhead signs on Bay Area freeways were telling drivers that text messages can wait, don’t text and drive.
Most commuters on Tampa Bay area freeways have witnessed the effects of texting and driving but for a vivid image, simply talk to almost any motorcyclist. Driving a more vulnerable vehicle that requires intense concentration on the road and surrounding traffic, bikers are witnesses to the erratic behavior of drivers distracted not only by texting, but also by those simply talking on the phone while at the wheel. Swerving across lanes, speeding up and slowing down are a frequent sight on area highways, and are indicators of a driver that is not entirely focused on the task of maneuvering a large, heavy vehicle amongst other vehicles on the road.
According to Distraction.gov, sending or reading a text message while driving removes a driver’s focus on the road and surroundings for an average of 4.6 seconds, or roughly the equivalent of driving the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour entirely blind. Approximately twenty percent of teenage drivers and 10 percent of parents have admitted to having multi-text extended text conversations while driving. And that number consists merely of those who admit to doing it. Even reaching for a cell phone, let alone using one to dial a number or type a text message, increases the risk of getting into an accident by three times.
According to a privately run website, www.textinganddrivingsafely.com, using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other news sources, 23 percent of all auto collisions in 2011 involved at least one driver using a cell phone — that amounts to 1.3 million crashes.
According to state Senator Nancy Detert of Venice, the sponsor of the new law, approximately 11 teenagers die each day in the United States while texting and driving.
Governor Rick Scott signed Florida’s new texting ban into law last May, an act that drew praise from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Texting while driving is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible decisions a driver can make,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “Florida is sending a strong message that it wants all drivers to be distraction free.”
Major cell phone providers have also been supportive of texting and driving laws.
Critics, however, have complained that the Florida law is too weak. The new law, taking effect on Oct. 1, will make texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning that drivers cannot be pulled over on that basis alone, but as part of another offense, such as weaving in traffic. Additionally, the ban allows drivers to text while stopped, whether in a traffic jam or at a stop sign. Drivers can also send a text message to report the commission of a crime. The fine is $30 for a first offense and law enforcement officers will not typically be allowed to confiscate the cell phone.
For the past several years, well prior to the new law, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has included a check-off box on accident reports if a deputy knows or suspects that distracted driving may have contributed to an accident or an infraction.
Last year, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles data suggested that more than 4,500 accidents were caused due to drivers distracted by the use of electronic communication devices.