Editorial: Outlier Florida must toughen its texting-while-driving law

If you were to be reading this sentence while driving, instead of watching what’s ahead, you’d be creating quite a hazard on the road. That’s obvious.

Yet thousands of us do the equivalent every day. We’re reading and writing on our smartphones while driving — underestimating the dangers while overestimating our abilities to stay in control.

A typical text takes a driver’s mind and eyes off the road, and maybe hands off the steering wheel, for almost five seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that’s long enough to drive almost the length of a football field. That’s a lot of yardage to travel blind.

Florida is one of only four states where texting while driving is not a primary offense. And call it coincidence, but Florida is also the second-worst state for distracted driving. Only Louisiana’s drivers are more absorbed by their phones, according to online insurance marketplace EverQuote.

RELATED: ‘Angry as hell’: Distracted crashes up, father wants action on phones

Texting while driving has been against the law in this state since 2013, but only as a secondary offense. That means an officer who witnesses a violation can’t do anything about it unless the driver also commits a primary offense such as running a red light or speeding.

Advocates have tried to toughen the Florida law for a couple of years, but their bills died in committee. Last week came a possible breakthrough. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said he supported making texting while driving a primary offense. His support could make it a reality in the coming 2018 session.

Corcoran is backing a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa. Slosberg was injured in a 1996 car crash that killed her twin sister along with four other teenagers. Her father, Irv Slosberg, made auto safety his almost exclusive priority during 12 years as a state representative. He was instrumental in the passage of the 2009 state law requiring motorists to wear seat belts. Emily is picking up where her father left off.

“Motorist fatalities are the highest they’ve been in our state in 10 years,” Emily Slosberg told The Post’s Jorge Milian, “and it’s all attributable to distracted driving, people looking at their phones and not paying attention to the road or bicyclists or pedestrians or each other.”

Auto safety doesn’t have a lobby in Tallahassee, like utilities or liquor or guns. So Slosberg, with admirable energy, is pushing cities and all 67 counties to pass resolutions supporting her bill.

RELATED: New danger for drivers: In-car infomation systems, study finds

She picked up an invaluable ally in Corcoran, a powerful figure in the Legislature. As the father of six children, including two teens with driver’s licenses, he says, he has become increasingly concerned.

“The statistics have just become overwhelming,” he told the News Service of Florida last week.

He’s right. The state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported nearly 79,000 distracted-driving crashes in Florida in 2016, including 1,591 deaths — 106 of them in Palm Beach County. That was 10 percent more crashes than just the year before.

Around the nation, 542,073 drivers were holding a cellphone to their ears any given moment in daylight hours in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Texting-while-driving now causes 1 in 4 accidents in the U.S. It’s six times more likely to cause an accident than drunken driving. It causes the deaths of 11 teenagers a day.

“All of us have driven down the road and looked over to the car next to us and watched them fully engaged in email or texting,” Corcoran said. “It has reached an epidemic.”

It’s time to crack down. Under the proposed legislation, a first violation would bring a $30 citation plus court costs, for a total fine of up to $108. The penalties stiffen for repeat violations or those that result in a crash or occur in a school zone.

Safeguards must be drawn into the law to make sure that, as some African-American lawmakers fear, this new primary offense won’t give police another pretext to hassle black motorists, who are stopped nearly twice as often as whites for seat-belt violations, according to an American Civil Liberties Union study.

The bill does contain civil liberty protections: Motorists wouldn’t be required to turn over their phones until warrants are issued, and couldn’t be detained while the warrant is sought. Officers would “have to witness the event, issue the ticket, and then that person is entitled to their day in court,” Corcoran said.

It’s clear that, on their own, lots of drivers can’t resist the lure of their electronic devices while at the controls of a 4,000-pound machine hurtling down the road. A greater deterrent is needed.

Florida must join the 46 other states that already regard texting-while-driving — a primary cause of accidents and highway deaths — as the primary offense that it is.

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