Put the damn phone down and drive

After crashing her car into a mailbox in the ABC comedy “Happy Endings”, character Penny Hartz offers a sarcastic apology to startled onlookers: “Sorry, I was texting.”

This comedic line in a sitcom is sure to provoke laughter from viewers because many people know what a pain drivers who text while driving can be. But the only thing laughable about texting and driving is the lack of a state law against it in Florida.

With the increasing use of smart phones, texting and driving is rapidly becoming one of the greatest hazards on the nation’s roadways.

The National Safety Council, a nonprofit that promotes safe driving, estimates that 18 percent of all U.S. accidents may be caused by texting. Many of those end in fatalities.

The growing evidence shows that texting while driving can be more dangerous than driving drunk. Consider this:

•    Texting makes drivers more than 20 times more likely to crash, compared with drivers who aren’t texting, according to a 2009 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

•    Motorists who text have their reaction times deteriorate by 35 percent, a 2008 study by the U.K. -based Transport Research Laboratory found.

Nationwide,  39 states including the District of Columbia ban text messaging and driving. These states have adopted penalties for drivers caught texting, the penalties can range from a traffic citation, to a misdemeanor infraction.

In most states, the texting ban applies to all drivers, regardless of their age. However, in some states, like Texas and New Mexico, the law only applies to teenagers — although studies have shown that adult drivers are just as likely to text. Some states ban texting from school bus drivers and/or novice drivers.

In five states, including Florida, there are no laws against texting and driving, despite consistent lobbying from state police associations and safety advocate groups. For several years, proposed laws to ban texting while driving have passed in the Florida Senate, but they have all died in the House.

Several Florida legislators have complained that legislative leaders deliberately blocked anti-texting bills, even ones that would have banned texting and driving only in school zones.

Legislators point the finger specifically at former Speaker of the House Dean Cannon, who said there are “personal liberties were a concern.”

It is illegal to drive a car in Florida without wearing a seat belt — an act that endangers no one but the driver. Yet, it’s ok to take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel to send a string of texts, while cruising down a crowded street at 50 miles per hour.

The personal liberties argument is foolish. Nobody has the right to drive a car; it’s a privilege.

It is illegal to drive a car in Florida without wearing a seat belt — an act that endangers no one but the driver. Yet, it’s ok to take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel to send a string of texts, while cruising down a crowded street at 50 miles per hour.

The public knows texting while driving is hazardous. A 2010 poll by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that 87 percent of people consider texting while driving a “very serious” safety threat, but many of those same drivers surveyed also admit to doing it.

The increasing problem of texting while driving is clear, and it’s now time that our state legislators start to catch up to the reality. It’s time for the state to tell drivers to put the damn phone down and drive.

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