Every day in the United States, nine people are killed in vehicle crashes where distracted driving is deemed the culprit; another 1,000 people are injured. In most of those cases, the distraction is texting or talking on a cell phone.

Last year in Florida, more than 50,000 crashes were blamed on distracted driving — again, mostly due to phone use — and 220 people died in those crashes. In Marion County alone, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were 615 accidents attributed to distracted driving, with nine deaths. In both instances, authorities say the numbers are likely wildly conservative.

Against that statistical backdrop, two lawmakers are proposing legislation for the 2019 session that would make using a cell phone to talk or text a primary traffic offense that could lead to a ticket. As it is, in 2013 the Legislature made texting and driving illegal — though not talking on the phone — except they made it just a secondary offense, meaning unless a police officer stops you for some other violation and catches you texting, she cannot write a ticket.

State Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, have introduced similar bills that would not only make texting and driving a primary offense, but talking on the phone as well, unless the driver is using a hands-free device.

Passage of these bills is way overdue. Florida is among just a handful of states that does not make texting and driving a primary offense. And a growing number of states are banning both texting and talking on the phone as the number of accidents, injuries and deaths attributable to distracted driving continues to grow.

Studies show that a driver who is texting is six times more likely to cause a crash than a drunken driver. And among teenage drivers, 58 percent of all crashes are due to texting while driving.

The existing texting ban, if you can call it that, has done virtually nothing to stem the number of accidents in Florida, which have climbed each year since 2013. Tougher legislation has been introduced every year since 2015, only to be rebuffed somewhere along the legislative process. Last year, for example, the House passed a full texting ban 112-2, only to see it die in the Senate, presumably over fears of privacy violations and racial profiling. Those can be addressed.

Some observers have dubbed texting and driving “an epidemic” that in 2016 claimed 3,450 lives nationwide and left 390,000 more injured. But if there is no law with any teeth, with no power for police to stop and cite distracted drivers, as is the case in Florida, the epidemic will only get worse.

That Simpson is the incoming Senate majority leader is a positive omen for successful passage of this needed law.

The Legislature needs to let Florida join the rest of the nation and treat texting and talking on our cell phones while behind the wheel like the public safety hazard that it is. People are dying everyday and our lawmakers are not doing anything to stop it.

 

This editorial originally appeared in the Ocala Star-Banner.