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Florida’s ban on texting while driving

The Florida legislature celebrated the passing of a law last year prohibiting texting while driving, which went into effect on October 1st, 2013. Florida Senator Nancy Detert (R-Venice) championed the legislation, having drafted and moved it through both houses, while Governor Rick Scott talked of his expectation that the bill will keep his loved ones safer while they are on the road as he signed the bill into law at a high school in Miami.

It’s been three months since the law went into effect, and to much chagrin among the families of people who have actually lost loved ones to distracted driving, The Sun Sentinel reports that the number of people who have been ticketed under the new law for texting and driving is dismal.

In Broward County, only 32 citations were issued in the first 90 days of the law becoming effective. That’s an average of 2.8 citations a day. The question many advocates for tougher penalties for distracted driving are finding themselves asking is whether as a society we should be accepting that only about 2.8 drivers on the roads of Broward County on any given day are texting, while hundreds of thousands of others are not.

The low numbers are actually the result of incumbent flaws in the legislative text, according to reporters, and they are right. Chapter 316.305 of the 2013 Florida Statutes is the section of the law entitled “Wireless Communications Devices; Prohibition”, also known as the Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law. It’s really less of a strict and swift “prohibition”, as the stern title suggests, and more of a subtle warning of paltry fees for disregarding a loosely constructed ban.

The three major flaws that are inherent in the bill’s text, rendering the prohibition much less effective as a tool to curb texting while driving, are listed and descried below.

1. The law imposes a nonmoving violation for offenders

Section 4(a) of the Chapter stipulates that anyone who violates the ban by typing, reading, or engaging in electronic communication via a handheld device while operating a motor vehicle has “committed a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable as a nonmoving violation”. Nonmoving violations in Florida invoke a $30.00 civil penalty payable to the County in which the infraction occurred by mail.

2. Enforcement of this law may only be conducted as a secondary action

Section (5) stipulates that enforcement of the law can only be imposed as a “secondary action”, which means the violator must have already been under suspicion of having violated any other provision of the Florida code on motor vehicle law. The “precursor” provision effectively dulls an officer’s ability to issue tickets and penalties for violations, and it also explains why only 32 tickets have been issued in Broward County in the first three months of the law’s existence. It’s not enough for an officer to witness someone actively texting and driving to enforce the law.

Perhaps it’s somewhat telling that this is the last very last line of the code; it’s almost as if someone was able to stick it in at the very last second before the bill went to a vote.

3. The bill does nothing to address the harrowing statistics

Legislators are playing catch-up with this bill. Traffic statistics show that distracted driving, a dangerous condition in which a driver is texting or otherwise engaging with their phones or handheld device while they drive, caused more than 5,000 deaths in the last year alone, and is responsible for more than 450,00 traffic accidents in the United States (source: The Safety Report).

In 2009, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration released data that showed 16 of all fatal crashes involved distracted driving. Data has not yet been released for any year since, but that figure will almost certainly have been inflated in the last five years.

Given these trends, with this law, can Floridians feel comfortable that we’ve addressed the core structural deficiencies in our Code that are causing people of all ages and backgrounds to be killed or injured in distracted driving accidents? Are we finished now that this law has passed?

We would venture to guess the families of victims who have been killed or injured as a result of distracted driving wouldn’t be too pleased with the assumption that this law goes far enough, even for now.

*Photo attribute: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) By Mr. Jason Weaver, used with permission.

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