Texting while driving? Why doesn’t Florida ban holding a phone while driving? | Editorial

Florida legislators have a chance to make our roads a lot safer. They can ban drivers from holding cellphones behind the wheel.

It’s common sense that drivers with one hand on their smartphones and maybe one on the wheel are distracted, whether they are texting, talking or looking at their calendar, weather apps or the latest sports scores. People know better but do it anyway.

Under HB 1469, drivers would be restricted to hands-free (basically Bluetooth) phone use. They could touch their phone to start or end a call or to fire up Waze or other navigational apps but not interact with the phone in other ways. There are exceptions to report an emergency or a crime. It has passed three House committees and is on the House calendar, awaiting action in the Senate.

It’s time, and here’s why. There were almost 400,000 crashes on Florida roads last year; nearly 3,400 people were killed. Distracted driving, which has skyrocketed since the advent of the smartphone, is a major culprit. Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which works with insurance companies and safety organizations to track phone use behind the wheel, collects anonymized smartphone data, including this stunning statistic: More than a third of drivers who crashed were interacting with their smartphone in the minute before impact. Yes, there’s a big problem.

Let’s do some math. There were more than 14,800 crashes last year in Pinellas County, and 110 people were killed. Hillsborough County had 27,465 crashes and 233 deaths. If more than a third of those drivers were distracted by their smartphones, that would account for 5,000 crashes in Pinellas and more than 9,000 in Hillsborough alone last year. Those are just the crashes, not the close calls.

Each number is a person. That’s why the Senate companion bill, SB 1408, is named the “Anthony Branca and Anita Neal Act.” Neal was the sister of Sen. Tracie Davis, a co-sponsor of the bill. She was killed by a distracted driver while jogging, leaving behind a teenage daughter. Anthony Branca, also killed by a distracted driver, was the son of Demetrius Branca, who is tirelessly pushing the Legislature to adopt this commonsense safety legislation. He laid out his heartfelt campaign in a column in these pages a few days ago.

It’s already against the law to text while driving, but the rule is nearly impossible to enforce. A driver can simply claim he was doing something other than texting while holding his phone. Study after study shows that any use of a smartphone while driving is a distraction. This bill would acknowledge that fact and allow the police to pull over and ticket drivers who are holding their phones and using them. That makes enforcement simpler and would make our roads safer.

It’s time for Florida to join the vast majority of states that already have similar laws. While there are only a few days left in this legislative session, there is still time to pass this legislation. What is more important than acting on a bill that could save so many lives and prevent so many injuries? It’s time to keep drivers’ hands on the wheel and off their phones.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.