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.