Now is the time to toughen Florida's texting while driving law

Herald/Orlando Sentinel Editorial Boards

FILE- A driver uses an iPhone while driving Dec. 14, 2011, in Los Angeles.
FILE- A driver uses an iPhone while driving Dec. 14, 2011, in Los Angeles. AP

For several years, advocates of fortifying Florida’s feeble ban on texting behind the wheel have crashed into road blocks in Tallahassee. The breakthrough they’ve been waiting for, and deserve, just might have arrived.

Texting while driving has been against the law in Florida since 2013, but it’s classified as a secondary offense. That means police who witness violations are powerless to act unless the drivers at fault also commit a primary offense, such as speeding or running a stop sign.

Florida is one of only four states left that still consider texting while driving a secondary offense. Yet a bill to make it a primary offense, sponsored by South Florida Democrats Emily Slosberg and Richard Stark, didn’t even get a hearing in the 2017 legislative session.

There’s nothing secondary about the dangers of texting while driving. A typical text takes a driver’s mind and eyes off the road, and hands off the wheel, for almost five seconds. That’s long enough for a car traveling 55 mph to cover the length of a football field. And that endangers the driver and anyone else on the road.

The most formidable obstacle for a tougher texting ban has been the opposition of conservatives in the state House and Senate who reflexively object to more stringent government regulation. But last week, the Legislature’s most powerful and outspoken conservative, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, declared his support for making texting while driving a primary offense. This is a big deal.

Corcoran, a Republican, told the News Service of Florida that he has become convinced by “overwhelming” statistics of the prevalence and hazards of texting behind the wheel, especially for younger drivers. “This has reached a national crisis,” said Corcoran, the father of six children, including two teens who have drivers licenses.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported nearly 50,000 distracted-driving crashes across the state in 2016, causing more than 3,500 serious injuries and 235 deaths.

The highway safety department attributed more than 4,000 of last year’s statewide total of distracted-driving accidents to cellphone use or texting specifically. State police have said that figure is almost certainly underestimated, because drivers involved in crashes aren’t inclined to admit afterward that they were texting or doing anything else on their phones. Yet police throughout Florida issued fewer than 1,400 tickets for texting while driving last year.

The newest legislation, HB 33, mandates a warrant for law enforcement to access a driver's phone — a move to assuage conservatives, according to Bay News 9. Officers would also be required to inform drivers pulled over for texting while driving of their right to decline a search of their phone.

Advocates of a tougher texting ban are still facing opposition from some African-American legislators who fear creating a new primary offense might give police another excuse to single out and stop black motorists. The right way to alleviate their concern is to build protections against racial profiling into a tougher ban, not bury the bill again. Too many lives on Florida’s highways are at risk for the state to remain an outlier.

HB 33 does not go far enough to protect against profiling. Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, has announced his opposition to the bill.

Earlier this year, Slosberg said she would include language in her bill to require police agencies “to adopt policies to prohibit the practice of racial profiling.” Similar language belongs in whatever the Legislature might consider in the 2018 session. And if a primary offense bill passes, police supervisors, independent watchdogs and legislators will need to monitor the new law closely to make sure it is fairly enforced.

Momentum for a tougher texting ban has been building since the last legislative session, with dozens of local governments across Florida passing resolutions in support. Now, if Corcoran will put his political muscle where his mouth is, a bill stands a much better chance of becoming law. Floridians will be safer if it does.

A version of this editorial first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.