By Andrew Marra
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Traffic deaths rose in Palm Beach County last year. On the county’s roads and highways, 137 people died, a 21 percent jump from 2011. As in any year, these fatal crashes happened for a myriad of reasons, but police are pointing more and more to cell-phone use as a major factor.
This is hardly news. According to an estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, distracted driving causes more than 5,000 deaths each year, and cell phones are a leading cause of distraction.
But in Florida distracted-driving deaths are a continuing outrage, because state legislators have refused to take so simple a step to minimize them as banning texting on cell phones while driving. This move has been postponed for years because of excessive libertarian hand-wringing, and it is surely costing lives. Only 11 states still allow texting while driving. It is time for Florida to abandon this disgraceful group.
This year, the timing may be right. A powerful opponent of anti-texting laws, former House Speaker Dean Cannon, is no longer in office. Neither is former state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, another influential foe. A spokesperson says House Speaker Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has promised that anti-texting measures will “receive a fair hearing.”
State Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is one of at least three legislators who have filed bills that would finally ban the practice. In considering a texting ban, legislators will have to decide whether texting while driving should be a primary or a secondary offense. If it’s a secondary offense, drivers could be cited only if a law enforcement official already had stopped the driver for a different reason.
Although deadly crashes increased last year in Palm Beach County, they have been falling in recent years, from as high as 206 in 2007. But this is despite increased cell phone use and ubiquitous texting, which make Florida’s roads more dangerous. As Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Tim Frith told The Post: “Our biggest challenge right now is for drivers to put away the distractions that they have become accustomed to using.”
In opposing texting-bans, conservatives often cite the same concerns about infringing on personal freedoms that they use to argue against mandatory seatbelt or motorcycle helmet laws. Mr. Cannon called an anti-texting ban a way of needlessly creating “one more layer of prohibitive behavior.”
But an anti-texting ban is different from these self-preservation measures because it affects the safety of other drivers. Drunken driving laws serve the same purpose. Laws that reasonably restrict reckless driving do not infringe on personal freedom, and texting while driving is nothing if not reckless.
for The Post Editorial Board