While a statewide ban on texting and driving is about to take effect, some officials believe it may not be enough to solve the issue.
Florida’s law against texting and driving will be enforced starting Oct. 1. State Sen. Maria Sachs, one of the main proponents of the ban, believes policy makers need to toughen these laws in order to protect others at risk by distracted drivers.
“It’s not good yet and it’s not perfect yet,” Sachs said. “It is a step in the right direction.”
The bill, SB 52, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on May 28, prohibits motorists from using their cellphones to text or email while driving, with some exceptions. Drivers are allowed to use their devices while reporting criminal activity, listening to music or using text-to-talk systems such as Siri.
They may also text or email while stuck in traffic or at red lights, Sachs said.
The current violation for texting and driving is a secondary offense, which means police officers can only write a citation if the driver is pulled over for another violation.
Lt. Todd Kelly, Alachua County Sherriff’s Office spokesman, believes this will make it difficult for officials to enforce the law.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but it is a small step,” Kelly said. “Being a secondary offense, the law takes a backseat, priority wise, because it’s not something that is easily enforceable. You are going to have to see some other violation first. It takes a little bite out of how serious of a stand the state is taking on it.”
Sachs is proposing a solution to critics’ remarks. She hopes to file a bill in the 2014 legislative session that would make the use of any handheld device illegal as a primary violation. Police officers would then be able to pull over motorists if they saw them using any device with their hands.
Sachs also believes there needs to be a cultural change regarding driving and technology.
“The overall goal isn’t just to save lives, it is to change the culture of drivers in Florida,” she said. “Just like we did with seatbelts, you need to do with technology.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, talking on a cellphone causes nearly 25 percent of car crashes. Additionally, in 2008 almost 6,000 people were killed and 500,000 were injured in crashes related to driver distraction.
To some, these statistics are chilling, and Sachs agrees.
“Hopefully, we will have gotten used to it and we can stop having deaths,” Sachs said. “Every year we wait, more people die and so many of them are young people. We have some work to do.”
Matt Redinger, the co-founder of a fitness company in Gainesville, said he used to text a lot more while driving because he wasn’t aware of the dangers and how bad it was. He now aims to only send text messages when he is stopped after seeing various educational campaigns spring up last year. However, he admits that it is very tempting to check his phone.
“I don’t think the law would stop me because it would be really hard to prove it,” Redinger, 28, said. “People will always check their phones because that’s the world we live in.”
Karen Smith, the public information officer for the Florida Department of Transportation, said FDOT is trying to educate the public about the dangers of texting and driving by launching a statewide campaign.
Oct. 1 will be “Put It Down” day, where all drivers are encouraged to consider the risks of distracted driving.
“We’re sure that we’ll see a decrease in fatalities and injuries related to texting and driving,” Smith said.
Florida was the 40th state to ban texting while driving, according to a press release from AAA.
In addition, 37 states plus D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam already consider texting a primary offense, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Only four states, including Florida, recognize it as a secondary law.
Kara Macek, the communications manager at GHSA, said educating the public and putting cops on the road will help change driving behaviors. She added that a secondary law is not ideal.
“The most improvement and success is with primary laws,” she said.
Like Florida, the state of Ohio treats texting and driving as a secondary offense. The law was enforced one year ago, but Ohio Highway Patrol Sgt. Thomas Holbert said accident rates have not decreased. Although it is harder to track the violation, Holbert said he is hopeful that the law is making people more aware of the dangerous habit.
Similarly, Macek said the data is not exactly clear on how the law will affect accident rates because the issue is very new. Most laws in several states are fairly recent, and she said studies and statistics are still in the works.
Moreover, texting and cell phone policies differ from state to state, and some states are reluctant to get into the specifics.
But Macek added that enforcing any kind of cell phone law is better than nothing.
“Don’t rely on the law in your state,” she said. “Take it seriously and focus on driving.”