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Florida's Texting-While-Driving Ban Has No Teeth

New law, intended to reduce distracted driving, doesn't go nearly far enough.
Florida Tuesday became the 40th state to ban texting when behind the wheel. The law is so lax, however, that it can only be applied as a secondary offense: Florida's police officers aren't allowed to pull over drivers they see texting. Florida needs to do much better.

The law was signed into effect Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School in Miami. The governor chose a high school to drive home the point that texting when driving is a major problem for teen drivers.

Sending messages from behind the wheel is the leading cause of death for teenagers, according to a study published earlier this month. Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park determined that more than 3,000 teens are killed each year in car accidents caused by texting, with another 300,000 teens treated at hospitals for injuries sustained in such crashes. Fewer teens are killed or injured in alcohol-related crashes.

[ Speaking might be no safer than typing when you're behind the wheel. Read Dictating While Driving: As Dangerous As Typing. ]

Governor Scott said, "As a father and a grandfather, texting while driving is something that concerns me when my loved ones are on the road. The 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are known as the deadliest days on the road for teenagers. We must do everything we can at the state level to keep our teenagers and everyone on our roads safe. I cannot think of a better time to officially sign this bill into law."

Too bad the new law is practically worthless.

As worded, the texting ban says drivers cannot operate a motor vehicle "while manually typing or entering multiple letters, numbers, symbols, or other characters into a wireless communications device or while sending or reading data in such a device for the purpose of non-voice interpersonal communication, including, but not limited to, communication methods known as texting, emailing and instant messaging."

Even if police officers see someone texting behind the wheel, however, they can't do anything to stop them. Because the ban refers to texting as a secondary offense, it can be applied only if the driver is pulled over for another infraction or causes an accident. Further, a first offense rates a fine of just $30, and a second offense (within five years) rates a fine of just $60.

Worse, the law makes exceptions, allowing the use of mobile devices for GPS and navigation, for reporting crimes and when using voice-to-text services. Florida's lawmakers clearly didn't read the study published last month that shows dictating messages impairs drivers just as much as typing them does. Florida's lawmakers also didn't notice that a court in California recently upheld a conviction wherein a driver was pulled over for using his device's GPS capabilities for directions. California bans nearly all use of mobile or handheld devices when behind the wheel.

In Florida's defense, it appears that more-stringently-worded laws have little effect on teens' driving habits.

"Fifty percent of high school students of driving age acknowledge texting while driving," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen and author of the dictation study. "When we compared states where there are no laws in effect [barring texting while operating a moving vehicle] and states where there are laws on the books, we found there was no difference in their responses. Clearly, the laws are not effective."

Teens aren't the only ones to blame. A study from AT&T, SKDKnickerbocker and Beck Research published earlier this year showed that more business professionals than teenagers are now texting while driving. Worse, 98% of those surveyed said they understand how dangerous texting while driving is, but they admitted to doing it anyway. Half of commuters send text messages or emails when behind the wheel, compared to 43% of teenagers.

As much as we might like to think that taking a peek at our phone's screen to read a message when driving is harmless, it isn't. Reading messages is bad enough; sending them takes drivers' eyes off the road for far too long as they hunt for letters to peck. With ineffective laws and little incentive for police to enforce the ones already on the books, education is perhaps the only way in which to combat texting while driving.

With more than 3,000 teenagers alone killed each year in accidents caused by text messages, it is a serious problem that needs to be addressed further by teachers, employers, the government and society at large.

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