Adding Teeth To Texting-While-Driving Ban Is A Step Forward

While we encourage you to read this commentary, we urge you not to do so while in the driver’s seat of your car. That’s because using your smart phone to read or text while driving is dangerous to everyone on the road.

Texting while driving, along with other forms of distracted driving, are not new concerns, but the push to hold drivers more accountable for driving while distracted by texting has moved past another legislative speed bump. The proposal recently approved by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee in Tallahassee would allow law enforcement officers to stop vehicles when they see motorists texting behind the wheel. It is co-sponsored by state representatives Emily Slosberg (D-Boca Raton) and Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa).

It’s an attempt to bring Florida into the modern era when it comes to cell phones and driving. The Sunshine State is one of only four states where texting while driving is not a primary offense. Currently, motorists can only be charged with texting and driving if they are stopped for other offenses, such as speeding.

The current legislation would allow motorists to text while in stationary vehicles, and would require law enforcement officers to inform drivers they have the right to decline a search of their wireless devices. The measure also would prohibit officers from confiscating handheld devices without warrants, and motorists cannot be detained while a warrant was sought. This is important to civil libertarians, who are concerned the bill could be used to target minorities. The bipartisan-backed legislation got a huge boost last month when House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes) announced his support of the measure.

Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported nearly 79,000 distracted-driving crashes in Florida in 2016, including 1,591 deaths — 106 of them in Palm Beach County. That was 10 percent more crashes than just the year before. Texting while driving now causes 1 in 4 accidents in the U.S, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It’s six times more likely to cause an accident than drunken driving, and results in the deaths of 11 teenagers a day.

Is the proposed legislation tough enough on its intended targets? Probably not; some supporters of the texting-while-driving ban would prefer lawmakers require motorists to be “hands free” from electronic devices. Slosberg herself said she would prefer a “hands free” requirement and for the charges to be criminal, but she said the bill had been negotiated and needs to be viewed as “a step in the right direction.”

Distracted driving — whether it be the driver turning the radio knob, eating lunch or looking in the back seat to make sure the kids are OK — has been a problem since the first automobile hit the road more than 100 years ago. We’re not so naive to think that if passed into law, this legislation will solve the problem. But every step along the way helps, and we see nothing in the proposed law that takes away from that effort.