Florida lawmakers push to end distracted driving

SR22Agency.com filmed I-95 in Florida for 20 minutes to study how many drivers were not fully focused while on the road.
Photo Courtesy of adweek.com. 

Thousands are injured and at least 10 people are killed each day across the U.S, due to crashes that involve a distracted driver.

Potential distractions include checking a cell phone, texting, using a navigation system or even eating while driving.

In an annual report conducted in 2017 by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the Sunshine State accounted for 234 fatal crashes involving a distracted driver.

To reduce the number of fatal crashes and end distracted driving, two Florida lawmakers are proposing identical bills known as the “Florida Driving While Distracted Law.”

Under SB 76, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and HB 107, sponsored by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, stricter driving rules would go into effect. 

The bills would prohibit a person from “operating a motor vehicle while distracted.” This includes “reading, writing, performing personal grooming, applying beauty aid and interacting with pets,” according to the bills.

With a much broader proposal to end this issue, lawmakers believe this can diminish distractions and force drivers to only focus on the road.

Keyna Cory, coordinator of the FL DNT TXT N DRV Coalition and supporter of the bills, said that the issue in distracted driving is a result of people’s dependent nature on their cellphones. 

“The highest problem with distracted driving is texting while driving and the problem is that we are so use to our iPhones and iPads, it seems like none of us can live without it,” said Cory.

“We are constantly checking, and we have got to get away from looking at it especially while we’re driving,” she added.

The current law in Florida prohibits drivers to text while behind the wheel. It is considered a secondary offense, in which drivers can only be issued a citation if they are stopped for another reason by a police officer. This can include speeding or running stop signs.

Under the original proposal, lawmakers pushed for holding a cell phone while driving as a primary offense.

During the 2018 session, a similar House measure failed to advance in the Senate over concerns for minority drivers possibly facing an increase in racial profiling.

To push for a different approach, legislators decided to broaden the bill after a Senate committee hearing two weeks ago.

Senators on the Infrastructure and Security Committee pushed to target any action that could be a distraction to a driver rather than just texting and driving behind the wheel.

In Leon County, residents are also impacted by distracted drivers.

According to a 2017 report by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were 910 distracted driving-related crashes in the county.

Although the 2018 report has not yet been released, the push to reduce these numbers remains a priority for officials and program leaders.

Lt. Derrick A. Rahming Sr., of the Florida Highway Patrol, said that with an increase of crashes, educating drivers on the dangers can make all the difference. 

“Distracted driving crashes are increasing every year, and every day, we read about tragic, preventable crashes on Florida roads. We never want a driver to learn the hard way,” he said.

“Although troopers enforce the laws of Florida and may issue citations that include a fine, it is also our mission to educate motorists in every interaction to encourage a positive change in driving behavior.”

To also help educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving, local father Demetrius Branca has created the Anthony Phoenix Branca Foundation.

The foundation is seeking to raise awareness on the risk factors and consequences of distracted driving.

It is also in honor of Demetrius Branca’s son, Anthony Branca, who was killed when he was hit by a Comcast Van while riding his motorcycle in November 2014.

Branca said that for drivers, people often think they cannot be a victim of a distracted driving-related crash.

“I think as humans we fall into this feeling of it’s never going to happen to me, it’s normal … I can get away with it,” said Branca.

“We forget that driving is the single most dangerous thing that we do on a regular basis.”

Through the foundation, Branca visits local high schools and speaks to students about his son and how dangerous distracted driving can be.

“[I want to] show how this young man who had so much potential was wiped out by something that’s completely preventable and senseless and how that has had an impact in this world and how it can affect each one of us personally,” said Branca.

If SB 76 and HB 107 are passed, the new law could go into effect July 1 or Oct. 1, depending on the version lawmakers agree on.