“It’s the Future”: Driverless Vehicle Facility Allows for “Real World” Tests

By Julie Gargotta
PUBLISHED 10:07 AM EDT May. 27, 2019 UPDATED 5:15 PM ET May. 27, 2019

AUBURNDALE, Fla. — In the middle of Polk County, there’s a road for testing technology so new that it’s still being created.

  • Suntrax a public-private partnership
  • Just completed a track for testing connected cars
  • Goal is to build a simulated city

Suntrax put the finishing touches on a testing facility for automated vehicles. The track is located in a secure facility off I-4 in Auburndale.

“In less than two years, we built everything,” said Paul Satchfield. “When you’re used to seeing it was a pasture and now it’s a full-fledged test facility, it was a great feeling. It’s the culmination of the vision.”

The SunTrax program manager has been with the project since day one. He said that the idea morphed from a way to test tolls technology at highway speeds to a bona fide testing ground — five lanes free from traffic — for connected cars.

“If something goes wrong, they can run it off into the field. They pick the car up, put it back together and try it again,” he said. “It’s going to increase mobility for everybody. If driving is a chore or you can’t do it, you’ll be able to hit a button on a phone.”


For Satchfield and others, the idea of autonomous vehicles ruling the roadway is promising. 

The capacity of a roadway might triple, he said, if all vehicles are connected. Cars will adjust to objects in roadway, without tapping their brakes; they can drive closer together.

And while most accidents are the fault of the human operator, fully-connected vehicles would reduce accidents by about 90 percent, Satchfield said.

Now Suntrax is relying on partners, like nearby Florida Polytechnic University, to dive into the research side of what it will take to get such vehicles geared up.

Grad student Christopher Medrano-Berumen​ is working to solve the problem. His thesis centers around automated cars and the process of licensing or regulating them.

Each week, the 21-year-old spends 20-30 hours completely absorbed in research, fueled he said by “lots of Red Bull.”

“Similar to a driving test you’d take to get your license, we wanted to do the same thing for an autonomous vehicle,” he explained. “It’ll hopefully alleviate a lot of the problems we see in urban transport.”

Medrano-Berumen​ works on his thesis under the guiding eye of Florida Polytechnic professor Dr. Mustafa Ilhan Akbas, who teaches about computer networks, autonomous vehicles, software engineering and network security​.

“It’s the future,” Akbas said. “You’re trying to solve a problem which is very difficult. That’s always exciting for me.”

Akbas explained that the first step is crafting simulations of the connected driving. Then, researchers will “hook up the brain” of autonomous cars into computers, before later connecting the real engine as well. The final step is to test out the connected cars on roadways using various scenarios.

“There are 300 million vehicles in the United States. Think about all the scenarios they can come across,” he mused. “We are going to bring the interesting scenarios to Suntrax or real life and test them there.”

But, Akbas said that collaboration with other universities and government partners is critical to bringing such technology to life.

“Connected vehicles will be an invaluable part of smart cities. So, the problem, the challenge is so big. No one can solve it individually,” said the professor.


In 2016, the Obama administration issued a RFP, or request for proposals, for any facilities that wanted to become U.S. Department of Transportation designated testing grounds for autonomous vehicles. 

Out of the more than 60 applicants, 10 spots in the U.S. were chosen a year later — one of which was Central Florida.

And on the heels of the 2016 designation, the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners (CFAVP) was formed between various universities and government entities: the Florida Turnpike; FDOT; LYNX; city of Orlando; Central Florida Expressway Authority; NASA’s Kennedy Space Center; and universities of FAMU, Florida Polytechnic and UCF.

Though the designation has since been disavowed by the Trump administration, the CFAVP continues to meet on a monthly basis and court grants to develop new technology.

“The proof of this is that subsets of the CFAVP, and other proving grounds, have been able to leverage the potential of the proving ground designations, and the strengths of the individual partners, to obtain large federal grants,” said the city of Orlando’s Charles Ramdatt.

Utilizing land owned by the Florida Department of Transportation, the Florida Turnpike paid $42 million to construct a 2.25-mile oval track off Braddock Road in Auburndale. The track, with four toll gantries, took two years to complete and was finished last month.

In another two years, Satchfield said that the 200-acre infield will be transformed into a simulated city, with moveable shipping container buildings, a downtown environment and lots of asphalt. 

“You could have six-story buildings there with glass fronts, the next day a one-story building with wood fronts,” he said.

They’ll build hills to test out sensors’ limits, as well as breaking and vibration areas. Plus, various scenarios which could prove tricky for driverless cars, like airport pick-up or drop-off areas.

“That’s one of the big issues right now, where you have a wash of traffic,” said Satchfield, continuing, “Cars speeding up, slowing down. Pedestrians. You’re not going to shut down the airport to do this testing.”

Florida lawmakers just adopted HB 311, propelling automated vehicle technology and supporting research. The bill now awaits the Governor’s pen.

But for now, the infield remains grassy and vehicles have yet to hit the roadway as technology is still being harnessed. Researchers, like Akbas and Medrano-Berumen, pore over code, computer programs and simulator testing.

“I think it is going to bring up talent from all around the U.S., the world to Florida,” said Akbas. “We are getting there with our research and it’s building up.”

“There’s lots to figure out. It’s kind of a race to see who can get there first,” added the student. “It’s very gratifying, very fulfilling…especially something that can be so game changing as self-driving vehicles.”

SunRail Rolling Out $200,000 Mobile App

SunRail is rolling out a $200,000 application for smart phones. (Spectrum News 13 file)
By Spectrum News Staff 
PUBLISHED 3:40 PM EDT May. 13, 2019 UPDATED 5:15 PM ET May. 13, 2019

ORLANDO, Fla. — On the heels of its fifth anniversary, SunRail is marking another milestone this week: Central Florida’s commuter-rail system is rolling out its first app for mobile devices.

  • SunRail’s new smart phone app cost $200,000 to produce
  • App aims to allow management of accounts on the go, plan trips
  • Rollout detailed in recent meeting of rail commission committee

“Folks will be able to plan their trips a little better,” Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Olson said. The app aims to make it easier for riders to manage their online accounts while they are on the go.

The process of moving money from a bank account to replenish a SunRail card, for instance, will be easier through the mobile app than it is now, Olson said.

Currently, people using SunRail on their mobile devices get the desktop version of the agency’s website. That version is hard to navigate on a mobile phone.

The rollout of the app was detailed at a meeting Thursday of public officials from across the region who advises SunRail’s governing board.

SunRail’s new smartphone app cost $200,000.

The technical experts, the governing board and citizen advisers, along with anyone who has signed up for SunRail text alerts, will get a link to the app.

“We are then going to wait 48 hours,” Mark Calvert, a SunRail subcontractor called Winter Park-based Evolve Management Group, told the technical committee. “We want to do our due diligence, work with our backend partner, understand the kind of traffic patterns and kind of customer feedback and everything like that before we roll it out to the general public on Thursday.”

The performance of the app will be measured, and feedback from the public will be examined Friday and over the weekend, Calvert said. Staffers will regroup Monday and examine feedback trends to fine-tune the app and discuss an outreach plan for the public.

SunRail launched launch service on May 1, 2014, opening a 32-mile system with 12 stations in three counties: Volusia, Seminole, and Orange. The system made 34 trips daily. Last summer, a southern expansion into Osceola County added four new stations: Poinciana, Kissimmee/Amtrak, Tupperware, and Meadow Woods.

Now, the system stretches 49 miles and has 16 stations. It’s up to 40 trips daily.

Florida Lawmakers Send $91.1 Billion Budget To DeSantis To End Legislative Session

By Meryl KornfieldGabriella PaulCat GloriaMax Chesnes and Katherine Campione, May 4, 2019,Fresh Take Florida,

In a rare weekend convening, Florida lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 session Saturday by enacting a $91.1 billion budget for the coming year — a budget that Gov. Ron DeSantis hinted he may trim with his veto pen.

Though partisan rancor flared during the session over issues including arming teachers and restoring voting rights to released felons, the final day was mostly a round of back-pats and nods to bipartisanship. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, reached across the aisle telling Democrats, “The truth is, the political process requires that tension of ideas, that back-and-forth pressure.”

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, declared it “very, very successful” and told the chamber’s members, “You made every last day count.”

The session will be remembered for what passed. That included a much-disputed bill allowing classroom teachers in public schools to carry firearms, and another expanding police authority to pull over motorists for texting. Just as important is what didn’t pass including bills that would have legalized recreational marijuana smoking and banned the practice of extracting natural gas through “fracking.”

Although nearly 3,500 bills were filed this legislative session, the House and Senate managed to send just 197 to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

At least 66 lawmakers were new to the Capitol after the November election. So were the governor and his cabinet. Despite partisan challenges and empty House seats in crucial districts, including the one hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, here is what was accomplished this session:

The legislature passed a $91.1 billion budget. 

Florida will be spending more on education and the environment this fiscal year.

The Legislature passed the state’s $91.1 billion budget, which is $2.4 billion more than last year and would take effect July 1. Cleanup funds for polluted waterways and per-student spending in K-12 schools received big increases. The state will spend less on land acquisition and on Visit Florida, a tourism promotion organization.

The Legislature also cut general operating spending for state universities. After the University of Central Florida came under fire for misspent funds, furious lawmakers considered holding back on appropriations, and even threatened to shut UCF down. House budget chair Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park, brought up the controversy over UCF’s unauthorized reallocation of state money during Saturday’s budget discussion, saying that lawmakers “easily could have” targeted UCF for reprisal in the budget “but I can tell you, they weren’t targeted.”

DeSantis can still line item veto any part of the budget, including any projects allocated for lawmakers’ districts.

The budget deal was finalized late Tuesday night, less than 72 hours from the scheduled end of session. Because Florida law requires a 72-hour “cooling-off period” prior to a final vote on the budget, the session was delayed until Saturday.

The Senate’s $90.3 billion budget plan and the House’s $89.9 billion were less than the $91.3 billion budget DeSantis originally proposed. All are more than the budget for 2018-2019, which is $88.7 billion. Differences between the proposals were hashed out in a joint committee of House and Senate delegates.

The state stripped local governments of several powers including the ability to ban plastic and not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The latest plastic bans in some cities and counties were the last straw for some state lawmakers, who voted to prohibit local governments from enforcing those regulations.

If DeSantis signs the bill, HB 771, local governments will not be able to implement plastic straws bans until July 2024. DeSantis will also decide on a bill, SB 168, that would ban “sanctuary cities,” or municipalities that have policies in place intended to limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. If he signs that, it would take effect July 1.

Majority leader Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said the bill against plastic bans is the right step to creating unified policies statewide.

“While we, the state of Florida, try to stay out of the cities’ and counties’ business as much as possible, and allow them that freedom, when they step out of range, and they begin to impede on the freedoms and liberties of the citizens, it is the state’s duty to step in,” Eagle said.

Lawmakers also considered preempting local laws on short-term vacation rentals such as AirBnb, but the bill died.

More funding will go toward cleaning up Florida’s waters.

Before the legislative session started, DeSantis called for reform, pushing for resignations from South Florida Water Management District board members and promising $625 million of his proposed budget for water projects including Everglades restoration. After a clean sweep of all water board members and new appointments of environmentally focused leadership, DeSantis and his legislators went to work on environmental policy.

Lawmakers easily approved a new Blue-Green Algae Task Force, fulfilling one of DeSantis’ major campaign promises. But they did not warm up to another water-quality proposal, SB 7064, by Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, which would have outlawed the controversial practice of extracting fossil fuels from subterranean stone through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Albritton’s bill died in committee.

The state legalized smokable medical marijuana and an industrial hemp program.

The future for Florida is green. Lawmakers passed legislation that legalized entire sectors of the cannabis industry, spanning its medicinal, industrial and agricultural spheres.

But still far off on Florida’s horizon is recreational use. A bill sponsored by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, never even got a hearing.

However, in March, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that legalized smokable forms of medical marijuana.

And, in the biggest win for the state’s cannabis industry, the legislature approved an industrial state hemp program. Hemp is an answered prayer for Panhandle farmers devastated by Hurricane Michael in October who are in need of an alternative crop. The industry is expected to draw billions of dollars to the state.

Florida’s newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried strongly backed the legalization bills, and their implementation will be overseen by Fried’s recently appointed cannabis director, Holly Bell, the first to hold that office.

Republicans achieved their goal of creating a new private school voucher program.

A Republican-led bill would create vouchers, called “Family Empowerment Scholarships,” for low income families to spend on private schooling. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading school-choice advocate who was on the floor when the Senate passed SB 7070, tweeted the encompassing education bill was “historic legislation that will usher in greater educational freedom for Florida families.” The bill also restructures how teachers receive bonuses: Instead of measuring them by their students’ tests scores, the new system would allow school districts to rank teachers by tiers.

Higher education

Lawmakers sent the governor a bill by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, that expands criminal liability for hazing to include those who plan or encourage abusive initiation rituals, and creates a limited “safe harbor” from prosecution for those who participate in hazing but summon emergency medical help for a hazing victim in distress. The bill, SB 1080, is known as “Andrew’s Law” in memory of a 20-year-old Florida State University student who died in 2017 after being coerced to drink a bottle of liquor as part of a fraternity induction.

Arming teachers

Lawmakers added classroom teachers to the list of personnel who can be armed on public school grounds. Both the House and Senate passed the bill to expand the school guardian program, which was created at the tail end of the 2018 legislative session as a part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act after the shooting in Broward County that killed 17 people. The act, SB 7030, requires all districts to install school resource officers on every campus or train some of their personnel to be armed.

The budget also allocated $500,000 to training guardians.

Amendment 4

One of the most divisive bills this legislative session, SB 7066, threw a complication into the process by which ex-felons can regain the right to vote.

In a November 2018 ballot initiative, a majority of Floridians voted ‘yes’ to Amendment 4, which redeemed ex-felons’ right to vote after serving time. But in a Republican-backed twist, ex-felons will first be required to pay all the court-ordered fines and restitution fees related to their sentence before regaining eligibility. Democrats in the legislature denounced the measure as a modern day “poll tax” on the voting booths, an institutional financial obstacle to the right to vote. DeSantis, a known proponent, is expected to sign the bill into law.

Criminal justice reform

A traditionally “tough-on-crime” legislature passed a limited reform bill that is meant to promote rehabilitation and reduce prison crowding, including increasing the threshold to be prosecuted for felony theft to $750, reducing or removing the penalty of lost driving privileges for certain offenses, and establishing an inmate reentry guide. The bill, HB 7125, also makes it easier to obtain expungement of an arrest record if the arrest did not result in a conviction.

But the bill failed to address two major issues advocates have fought for: more gain time and riddance of required sentences for certain charges called mandatory minimums.

The Senate’s version of the bill included an amendment that would have allowed thousands of nonviolent offenders to be released earlier than under the current law. With pressure from the House and DeSantis, the provision was dropped in the final days of session in an effort to get something passed.

The legislature also eliminated a proposal to adjust mandatory minimums for certain drug charges, and instead just abolished a mandatory minimum for selling horse meat.

Property insurance reform

After a six-year debate, the legislature passed a bill that proponents say is intended to stem property insurance claim abuse that has resulted in higher rates.

The “assignment of benefits” measure, HB 7065, would revise Florida’s one-way attorney fee statute, which says an insurer must foot the bill for attorney fees if, during a lawsuit, the insurer is found to have underpaid the claim by any amount.

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jim Patronis touted the bill as a legislative accomplishment in a press release, saying he “constantly urged lawmakers to bring everyone to the table and address out of control abuse of Florida’s Assignment of Benefits (AOB) process to protect consumers from bad actors who look to game the system.”

The bill would take effect July 1, in time for the inevitable property claims after major summer hurricanes. Despite an empty House seat for the district hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, lawmakers prioritized Panhandle recovery in the budget. The $220 million allocated to hurricane relief included $14 million for school districts that were hit by the storm and $25 million for grants to cities and school districts.

Visit Florida

Threatened with elimination, the tourism marketing organization VISIT FLORIDA received a one-year reprieve with enough money to continue operating until June 2020. The extension gives lawmakers a chance to decide in next year’s session whether to abolish the quasi-public corporation, which has been criticized for heavy spending on celebrity sponsorship deals.

The agency was scheduled to end in 2019 if not renewed by lawmakers. A bill, SB 178, to renew the date to 2027 was passed by the Senate but died in the House.

Canadian pills

A bill to allow the importation of Canadian prescription drugs to Florida, HB 19, passed the legislature and is bound for the governor’s desk. The bill’s intent: Florida’s patients will have access to cheaper drugs — eventually.

The measure establishes a Canadian Prescription Drug Importation Program. But eligible drugs would still have to meet rigid U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines. And before the program can move forward, it needs the official “yes” from the federal government, which could take months.

Other miscellaneous bills found passage through the House and Senate chambers during the year’s session as well:

The Aging Programs bill, SB 184 or HB 7019, is an attempt to resolve operational challenges regulating Florida’s hospices, assisted elderly living facilities and more. The bill would take rulemaking responsibilities from the Department of Elder Affairs to give to the agency that is tasked with enforcing the rules, the Agency for Health Care Administration.

The vaping bill, SB 7012 or HB 7027, enforces the ban on vaping in indoor workplaces, as suggested by Amendment 9.

The Corrections bill, SB 7046 or HB 7057, adds prisons as a place people can’t fly drones and lets the state hire 18-year-olds as corrections officers.

The Texting While Driving bill, CS/HB 107, makes texting while driving a primary offense, rather than a secondary one, meaning that police may stop a motorist who is seen using a handheld cellphone even if there is no other basis for the stop. It takes effect July 1.

When a Medicaid ride to the doctor’s office fails to show, others foot the bill

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes is sponsoring legislation that would allow Uber and Lyft to help get patients to medical appointments.

By Caitlin Johnston

Published March 31, Updated March 31

Elisabeth Olden, 53, waited earlier this month for the Medicaid-provided van to take her to a doctor’s appointment. 

The minutes ticked by, and Olden eyed the clock nervously. The wheelchair-accessible van was supposed to arrive no later than 12:15 p.m. for her 1 p.m. follow-up appointment. At 12:45 p.m., she called.

“They told me they canceled the ride because they couldn’t find a contractor to take me,” Olden said. “Nobody called me. They didn’t tell me. They just cancelled.”

The Pinellas Park resident is one of potentially thousands of Medicaid recipients who have been stranded, delayed or forgotten by transportation providers who are supposed to take them to their appointments. And many, like Olden, are choosing to take county paratransit options instead, which costs riders and taxpayers more money.

About 80 percent of the nearly 4 million people enrolled in Florida Medicaid have their non-emergency medical transportation provided as part of their coverage. Officials haven’t counted the number of Floridians who have missed appointments or been left waiting for hours, but the problem is so pervasive it has caught the attention of hospitals and transit agencies who are stuck paying the bill.

Officials for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority estimate that the agency spent $1 million in 2018 providing paratransit rides to people who chose the county bus agency instead of relying on a Medicaid-provided trip.

Tampa General Hospital is routinely unable to discharge patients because it takes extra days or even weeks to secure a Medicaid ride, said Peter Chang, vice president of care transitions. That means the hospital is racking up costs and unable to admit others while the patient waiting for the ride is stuck in a care facility they no longer need.

“I’m going into their rooms to say hi to them, and they’re saying, ‘When can I go? When can I go?” Chang said. “I have to explain to them that I’m trying to arrange transportation services and it’s taking time.”

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is sponsoring a bill during the current legislative session after hearing from a number of health care professionals with stories about patients being stranded for hours waiting for a ride.

“We can put a man in the moon in Florida, but we can’t pick someone up from a doctor’s appointment on time?” Brandes quipped.

Brandes, who has long supported rideshare providers, wants to allow transportation companies like Uber and Lyft to compete with taxi companies and wheelchair-accessible vans to provide Medicaid-sponsored rides. The hope is that providing more options will decrease wait times.

The on-demand service can also be tracked on a smart phone, allowing customers and hospitals to check on the status of a ride.

“We’ll have more contact and visibility from the doctor’s office,” Brandes said. “Today, there’s really no ability to track a ride.” But if the bill is approved, he said, “we can now call a medical provider and see in real time where people are.”

Right now, the paratransit rides provided when Medicaid service falls through are highly-subsidized and are driving up costs for transit agencies already struggling to balance their budgets.

Pinellas County’s transit authority provides door-to-door van service for people who can’t take a bus because of a disability or other reason. Known as Demand Response Transportation, costs of the program have spiked in recent years. Ridership growth of about 18 percent between 2016 and 2018 has increased expenses almost $2 million, CEO Brad Miller said.

The paratransit service, which often carries a single individual per trip, costs more than $26 per ride. Users pay $4.50 of that, leaving the transit authority — and taxpayers — to cover the remaining $22.

According to Miller, the contractor who provides paratransit rides for the county said a number of people were telling drivers that they were Medicaid recipients, but they either couldn’t schedule a trip or it was too frustrating and challenging, so they called the transit agency instead.

“It’s one of the main reasons we are seeing shortfalls in our budget,” Miller said. “They’re trips that should have been paid for by Medicaid, but instead we’re paying for it.”

Chang has seen a similar situation at Tampa General. Rather than risk waiting for a Medicaid ride, he said the hospital will sometimes cover the cost of a trip for a patient.

“We’re not shaving off an hour or two,” he said. “We’re talking about taking 10, 15, 20 days off a length of stay.”

Olden, the Pinellas Park resident, has avoided calling a Medicaid provider again after missing her appointment earlier this month. Fortunately for her, the doctor did not charge her a fee and she was able to rebook for two days later. But that’s not always the case.

“What if they couldn’t reschedule me and I had to wait six months?” Olden said. “That was just so bad of them to drop me and forget about me.”

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

Distracted driving bill advances—but without hands-free provision

Bereaved parents in particular long for stricter rules. 

ByJacob Ogles, on March 25, 2019

A bill aimed at stopping distracted driving advanced in the Senate on Monday, but advocates who want drivers limited to hands-free devices expressed frustration and said the bill has been watered down.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, sponsor for the bill (SB 76), stressed that the legislation has gone through substantial changes with two major amendments. But more shifts will come so long as the bill moves forward.

“For the parents hoping more for hands-free than texting and driving, this is a process,” the Trilby Republican said. “Remember, this is a work in progress.”

But Demetrius Branca, president of the Anthony Phoenix Branca Foundation, said the current legislation leaves Florida desperately behind.

His son, Anthony, died in a Tallahassee crash in 2014 when a van struck his motorcycle. The driver was distracted at the time.

“Maybe you do not understand the urgency,” Branca told senators. “Maybe you have not lived my nightmares.”

Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia have hands-free laws, Branca and other parents stressed. That includes neighboring Georgia.

But Judiciary Committee Chairman David Simmons offered an amendment putting the legislation more in line with a House bill (HB 107).

The Longwood Republican said the amendments to the bill narrow enforcement help prevent profiling of individuals. Changes include applying the law only with a vehicle in motion and zeroing in on actions like texting or writing emails on a smartphone.

The prior language for the bill, Simmons said, was too broad and allowed for officers to single people out for minor infractions.

“If you are on the phone or eating a hamburger or drinking a cola or listening to your significant other yell at you or you are singing with too much gesticulation,” he said, “the fact of the matter is, each of those circumstances of distracted driving could permit a law enforcement officer to go ahead and stop you.”

The legislation now also only allows communications records for a driver to be obtained by law enforcement in the event of a crash that causes fatal or serious bodily harm.

The legislation allows a transition period when officers can only pull people over for warnings. In 2020, it will allow officers to stop people as a primary offense and issue a citation.

Katie Petros, a Key Biscayne Council Member, attended the hearing and said the bill was necessary in a populous state rich with tourists.

“This is a habit we need to try to break,” she said of smartphone use while driving. “The longer we take to break it, the harder it will be.”

The bill now heads to the Rules Committee.

LANE: Is a stricter texting-while-driving law already doomed?

By Mark Lane 
Posted Mar 2, 2019 at 12:15 PM; Updated Mar 2, 2019 at 4:51 PM

The Florida Legislature is getting ready to convene and for a 10th year, I’m writing about driving-while-texting bills.

It’s that time of year again. The Legislature will convene Tuesday and I will write about bills banning texting and driving. I have been doing this for 10 years now.

The human brain and the human index finger are amazing things. But not so amazing that you can simultaneously react to traffic around you while commenting on the passing human comedy on your smartphone.

At best, you rotate swiftly quickly between the tasks, doing both imperfectly. At worst, you sucked into the screen and stop paying attention to the road altogether.

Driving is a complex task, and however good our reflexes, we can’t do more than one complex task at a time. Some of us are less bad than others. Nobody is good at this.

In a better world, we wouldn’t need to traffic laws against texting while driving, or even talking on a cellphone while driving, any more than we’d need laws against playing the saxophone while driving. People would just know better. Sadly, we do not live and drive in that world.

People, especially younger people, get locked into reflexive smartphone use and it doesn’t stop when they get behind the wheel. Just look around you at any stop light.

After five successive years of unsuccessful tries, legislators finally passed an inadequate texting-while-driving bill in 2013. By inadequate, I mean seldom evoked and hard to enforce. Kind of a joke.

In Volusia County, for example, only 29 drivers were cited for first-offense texting while driving in 2017. In Flagler, 11 drivers. Nobody was cited as a repeat offender in either county. This did not happen because we have exceptionally scrupulous drivers. Any drive on Nova Road will disprove that.

The difficulty is that a driver can only be stopped for texting on the road as a secondary offense. You must be doing something else citable to be stopped for driving while texting. You can be pulled over for a burnt out license plate light but not for composing a text while driving. In 47 other states, this is a primary offense, citable all on its own, but in Florida, we always have to be the exception.

Last session, as legislators reacted to alarming crash numbers because of distracted driving, it really looked like something might become law. “The statistics have just become overwhelming,” said then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The tougher texting-while-driving bill passed the House with only two votes opposed but was stopped dead in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Similar legislation already had been filed for the coming session. But something odd befell it in committee. The proposed “Florida Ban on Texting-While-Driving Law” turned into the “Florida Driving-While-Distracted Law” with a much-expanded menu of actions you could be pulled over for. These include “reading, writing, performing personal grooming, applying a beauty aid or similar products, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, using a personal wireless communications device, or engaging in any other activity, conduct, task or action that causes distraction.”

Whoa! Quite a menu. Something to worry about at the take-out window.

Minority legislators and civil libertarians already were wary about the anti-texting laws being misused for “driving while black” traffic stops. Now, they will be more opposed because the bill is overly broad. It invites pretextual traffic stops. An easy way to pull just about anyone over.

The Legislature hasn’t even convened yet and the measure already is in danger of being loved to death in the Senate. I guess I’ll be writing another column like this next year.

Florida needs the kind of carefully drafted anti-texting bill most states already have. It’s dangerous out there.

Honk! Florida texting bill should include red-light fools | Commentary

David Whitley, Contact Reporter Orlando Sentinel

A new survey shows that 57 percent of Florida drivers are self-absorbed goofballs.

It was based on a highly unscientific study of hundreds of motorists and conducted by a nonreputable polling firm – namely, me.

But I swear it’s accurate, and you’ll swear something has to be done about it. In fact, if you’ve been victimized by these people you’ve probably already sworn quite a bit.

We’re talking about our fellow motorists who use their smartphones at red lights. I’m sure most of them are decent, law-abiding citizens. But that’s part of the problem.

Texting while driving is (semi) illegal in Florida. Texting at red lights is not.

For some inexplicable reason, that wouldn’t change under two proposed laws that would crack down on texting.

You could still whip out your iPhone and respond to text messages, check your email, say hello to Facebook friends, play Fortnite, order a new Cuisinart from Amazon and become totally oblivious to your surroundings.

And it would be A-OK as long as you don’t become a traffic hazard. Which anyone who’s ever been stuck behind Mr. or Ms. Red Light Texter can tell you only happens all the time.

You know the drill.

The light turns green. A car ahead of you doesn’t move.

You inch forward. The texter still doesn’t budge.

You debate whether to honk your horn. You wait a second because maybe, just maybe, the driver is having a baby or a heart attack or grand mal seizure and you don’t want to seem like a hair-triggered jerk.

An eternity of two or three seconds passes. Still no movement.

You reach for the horn, and at that split second the texter snaps out of their digital trance and hits the gas. You make it through before the light turns red, but pity the poor sucker three or four cars back.

Meanwhile, Mr. or Ms. Texter is blissfully on their way to the next red light, where there will be a fresh batch of people to infuriate.

Am I wrong, or is the preceding scenario happening more often as our ADD society becomes further addicted to social media?

I couldn’t find any real studies to confirm that, but there are tons of them verifying the danger of texting while driving.

It’s against the law in 47 states, including Florida. Though we make it a “second offense,” meaning police first must stop drivers for another offense, like speeding or running a light, in order to write a ticket for texting.

As long as nothing’s wrong with their car, drivers can zoom down the interstate texting to their heart’s content. And there’s nothing police can do about it.

Two bills have been filed in the Florida Legislature that would make texting a “primary” offense. Any sentient human should be all for that.

I endorsed the bills even before a distracted driver rear-ended my wife’s car. The humans were fine, but her car sustained $5,000 worth of damage.

“I-4 and texting are great for business,” the guy at the body shop told me.

We’re spending $2.3 billion to improve I-4. Making texting a primary offense would be a lot cheaper and save far more lives.

It would save a lot of infuriation if Florida legislators changed the definition of “vehicle operator.”

Statutes ramble on about sending and receiving character-based messages, Internet connections and other communications while operating a motor vehicle. But “a motor vehicle that stationary is not being operated and is not subject to the prohibition….”

Whoever wrote that obviously hasn’t been stuck behind Mr. or Ms. Red Light Texter.

The bills filed in the Florida Legislature need to be amended to include sitting idle under the definition of “vehicle operator.”

The state’s DUI laws do. The car doesn’t even have to running for the person behind the wheel to be arrested.

Texting at red lights isn’t nearly as lethal as drunk driving or texting while driving 70 mph. But texters start, stop, drift and increase the likelihood someone behind them will try to beat the light.

They also make other motorists want to commit homicide.

I don’t advocate mass extermination, but a crackdown is called for. Being a “vehicle operator” and “smartphone operator” do not mix, even if the car is standing still.

David Whitley is a member of our Community Conversations Team. He can be reached at dwhitley@orlandosentinel.com

Parking lot crashes on the rise in the Tampa Bay area, possibly due to distracted driving

Posted: 3:19 PM, Feb 05, 2019  Updated: 2:38 AM, Feb 06, 2019

TAMPA, Fla. — Parking in the Tampa Bay area can sometimes feel like playing bumper cars in a maze.

“If you’re not watching, God forbid,” warns Judy Gowing. “I’ve seen some pretty scary things going on in parking lots,” she says.

A driver blindsided Judy on May 7, 2018 in St. Petersburg

“The car was coming from that direction. And she hit me about right here,” Gowing said. “It left a bruise on my hip”

What happened to Judy is happening more and more in Florida every year.

From a car slamming into a bank in St. Petersburg, a car crashing into a pizza store in Lake City, a van plunging from the fourth story of a Miami parking garage, to people getting run over in parking lots in Hernando County.

Parking lot accidents are more than just fender benders in the Sunshine State. Thirty-two people died in parking lot crashes last year. Nearly 7,000 people suffered injuries.

ABC Action News pulled the numbers going back four years for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Hernando, Sarasota, and Manatee Counties.

Data shows parking lot crashes are going up every year in the Tampa Bay region. There were 5,600 parking lot crashes last year. That’s up 16 percent since 2015.

In fact, there were more parking lot crashes in our area than alcohol-related, motorcycle and pedestrian crashes combined.

Guess where most of the parking lot accidents happen? International Mall in Tampa and Tampa International Airport.

“There’s a possibility that drivers think that because they are off the main thoroughfares that some of the rules don’t necessarily apply,” says Sgt. Steve Gaskins with the Florida Highway Patrol.

Sgt. Gaskins says the physics of driving a two-ton car don’t change just because you are in a parking lot.

“Even at a slow speed, this car, when it’s moving, you are looking at 5,000 pounds worth of steel and metal that if it rolls over you can cause serious injury and or death,” says Sgt. Gaskins.

So what is driving the surge in parking lot crashes? Distracted driving.

A new report from the National Safety Council found 66 percent of drivers nationwide admit they make phone calls while driving through parking lots. Fifty-six percent say they text. Half send or receive emails. And 49 percent say they take photos or watch videos while driving in parking lots.

For a deeper look at the data behind driver behavior in parking lots, click here.

To see how you can make your driving experience safer and less hectic in parking lots, click here.

First responders remind drivers to move over for emergency vehicles

Tori Simkovic Reporter

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —January is Move Over Awareness Month. 

The goal is to remind drivers that state law requires you to change lanes when you see first responders, tow trucks and road rangers on the side of the road. 

Florida Highway Patrol said that failing to move over caused 185 crashes and resulted in the death of two troopers in 2018. So far in 2019, move-over-law violations have already caused several accidents in Palm Beach County.

“Just this Sunday, we had two incidents: one a couple miles south of [West Palm Beach.] One of our fire engines was struck while the firefighters were working an accident on the side of the road. Thankfully, nobody was injured. Only 30 minutes later, we had another incident up in the Jupiter area, where a road ranger was struck and we had to transport them to the hospital,” said Capt. Albert Borroto of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. 

In just one month, Boynton Beach police have had three of their patrol cars hit by drivers failing to move over.

Move-over violations carry a fine of $119 and three points on your driver’s license. If it is not safe to change lanes, slow down to 20 mph below the posted speed limit.