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  • Mike Brand Tallahassee Democrat

Distracted driving must be top of Florida Legislature's agenda

There’s no better way for Florida lawmakers to serve their constituents during this session than to take a hard line on an issue that directly affects every one of Florida’s 19 million residents: the rapidly growing epidemic of distracted driving — particularly distraction resulting from communications devices.There were more than 45,000 crashes caused by distracted drivers last year in Florida. At least 214 people died. Of the dead, 198 were drivers. The problem is getting worse every year.That means by this time next year, thousands of Floridians who are currently hale, hearty and full of life will have their lives changed forever — or worse. The tragedy is that all these deaths are totally preventable.It seems completely insane that so little has been done to restrict use of communications devices while driving. The simple fact is, just a moment’s inattention can have life-changing consequences.In the 20 or so years of cellphone ubiquity, has there ever been a conversation or text while driving that couldn’t wait a few seconds? Has any call ever been important enough to justify the accident it caused? Somehow commerce and social lives thrived in the era of landlines and pay phones.Currently, texting-while-driving in Florida is only a secondary offense — one that officers cannot pull you over for, unless you are doing something else dangerous. Sadly, Florida is one of 11 states that doesn’t make it a primary offense.And the ticket for texting is only $20, with zero points on a driver’s license. And there is no penalty at all for talking on a cellphone while driving.For years, feckless lawmakers have ignored this menace, which is proven to be more dangerous than drunk driving. Five texting bills, including primary enforcement, were introduced in the 2016 legislative session. None of them even got a hearing. The usual opposition comes from conservatives fearing government intrusion in our personal lives. But sometimes you have to protect people from themselves.It’s telling that virtually all public transit agencies have strict regulations prohibiting their drivers from using smartphones — and they’re professional drivers. Yet there’s no restriction whatsoever for newly licensed 16-year-olds who pilot 4,000-pound missiles among us. It’s almost scandalous when cameras catch the occasional bus driver texting, but few care about the masses who text.

Someday all use of communications devices while driving will be sharply curtailed. Lawmakers will realize driving is just too important to mix with anything else. The catalyst will likely be a horrific mass casualty accident. Or maybe one of the world’s most famous celebrities will be killed by a texting driver. But why wait until then? As some executives are fond of saying — why wait until tomorrow to do what must be done today? Act now, lawmakers. The future lives you save may include your own. Mike Brand is a former television news producer who once simultaneously held operator, commercial, chauffeur and motorcycle licenses. He lives in Tallahassee.

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