Lawmaker makes new push to tighten law on texting while driving

Many drivers say ban on texting while driving would make roads safer

By Scott Johnson - Reporter , Corley Peel - Reporter , Nathalie Sczublewski, News Service of Florida

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A state lawmaker who survived a 1996 crash attributed to distracted driving that killed her twin sister and five other teenagers is making a new push to tighten a Florida law on texting while driving.

State Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, was elected last year to the seat her father held since 2000. Slosberg was one of the first legislators who tried to strengthen Florida’s current texting law, which has been on the books since 2013 by trying to make texting while driving a primary offense.

Florida is one of four states where texting while driving is a secondary offense, meaning that law enforcement officers cannot pull over motorists for texting at the wheel. Motorists can only be cited for texting while driving if they are stopped for other reasons, such as speeding or failing to wear seat belts.

The change to a primary offense would allow police to pull over motorists for violating the state's ban on texting while driving.

“Currently, they can see a 17-year-old looking on Google Maps, texting, Snapchatting or Instagramming, and they cannot pull that driver over,” Slosberg said. “(Almost) every other state in the country enforces this as a primary offense. Distracted driving fatalities and distracted driving injuries are increasing. This is preventable. Our law should be addressing this.”

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, 2,333 people ages 16 to 19 were killed and 221,313 were treated in emergency departments for motor vehicle injuries, according to the CDC.

Traffic fatalities in Florida increased nearly 18 percent in 2015, while teenage driver fatalities increased close to 30 percent.

Slosberg fought in the past to make texting while driving a primary offense for drivers under 18 and in school zones, but the Legislature did not approve the bills. 

Under current law

The Florida Highway Patrol said just over 1,400 citations for texting while driving were issued last year, with 82 in Duval County alone.

FHP spokesman Sgt. Dylan Bryan said troopers would welcome making it a primary offense, allowing them to pull over anyone seen texting.

"We would certainly welcome that," Bryan said. "That would be an opportunity to reduce the number of safety violations we have while people drive."

Texting while driving citations issued

2017 2016 2015 2014 2013
Alachua County 8 15 33 39 24
Baker County 0 2 2 2 0
Columbia County 0 2 3 4 0
Duval County 38 82 72 94 14
Flagler County 3 2 3 4 0
Nassau County 1 10 13 1 1
Putnam County 0 4 2 3 1
St. Johns County 5 11 18 12 2
Union County 0 2 0 0 0
Statewide 744 1,437 1,414 1,645 445

Bryan said troopers are more likely to issue tickets at night because they can see light from the phone illuminating a driver's face.

Many drivers told News4Jax the change to the texting while driving law should have happened years ago.

"You value your life for a $500 to $1,000, phone and you lose your life for a text? It can wait," said driver Ronnie Lindsay.

Another driver, Martha Brennecke, said she believes texting while driving is worse than drunk driving.

"They're endangering our lives," she said.

Truck driver William Rockefeller said dodging distracted drivers on the road is a battle he fights every day. 

"It aggravates me, because they're not paying attention, then they cut me off. They slam on the brakes, and then I can't go anywhere. Then they panic because they're about to pass their exit, because they're texting, run off the road, then they run me off the road, then there's nothing I can do about it," he said. 

Rockefeller said he thinks a ban on texting and driving is needed and would hopefully make the roads safer. 

On the road Thursday

News4Jax spend a few hours in the cab of Marsha Johnson's Duval Asphalt truck and saw a couple people using their cellphones while driving.

"I’m on the road a lot, and I see at least 10 to 15 people a day on their phones," Johnson said. "They do tend to drift into the other lane and then catch themselves and get back into the lane, then they'll start texting again."

While riding with Johnson, News4Jax saw a couple people who would have been ticketed if they were seen by a trooper and texting while driving was a primary offense.

Johnson couldn't use her phone while driving if she wanted to, because Duval Asphalt, like many companies who operate truck fleets, require locks that don't allow phone use.

Marty Raulerson, another trucker, believes a similar lock should be used for all drivers.

"I think they ought to have some sort of device on your cars where you can not use your phone at all while you’re driving," Raulerson said.

Lawmaker's current campaign

Slosberg is encouraging Florida communities to pass resolutions calling for the violation to be consider a primary violation. She hoped the change will pass in the House and the Senate and be approved by Gov. Rick Scott.

“I've written letters and called every single county commissioner,” Slosberg said. “I'm not going to stop.”

Tuesday evening, the City Council in Slosberg's hometown of Boca Raton became the first city to pass her resolution.

WJXT/News Service of Florida 2017