Driven to distraction

Florida legislators are trying (again) to prevent distracted driving, but it’s going to be hard for drivers to break the habit.

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click to enlarge AFTERMATH: Alan “Buddha” Vasquez, 49, was killed on September 26 when his van struck the back of a truck as he was texting while driving. His family brought the ruined van to the Distracted Drivers Summit. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
AFTERMATH: Alan “Buddha” Vasquez, 49, was killed on September 26 when his van struck the back of a truck as he was texting while driving. His family brought the ruined van to the Distracted Drivers Summit.

Speaking at a press conference in Tampa earlier this month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pulled out his BlackBerry, a ritual for him when discussing distracted driving.

“Everybody in this room has used this behind the wheel of a car. I know it’s true,” he said, slowly looking around at the roomful of reporters staring back at him.

“I don’t even have to ask for a show of hands, because we’re hooked on these. So it takes a combination of a lot of things to change people’s dangerous behavior, and we’re not going to change it overnight.”

As one of those reporters, I dutifully nodded while recording the cabinet secretary’s comments on my Zoom player. But the impact of his remarks — as well as those of several others who spoke at the Florida Distracted Drivers Summit — didn’t truly kick in for me until two nights later, as I drove to Oldsmar along Tampa Road, the roadway that connects Hillsborough to Pinellas County.

Every time I came to a stop at a red light (and there were plenty of them), I pulled out my Android phone to bring up and read about Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israeli military’s term for their assault on Gaza. I would throw the phone back on the passenger seat once the light turned green, then pick it up at the next red light. But I realized as I did it that I was — and am — a part of the problem.

Distracted driving is on the rise in this country. And it needs to stop.

An hour and a half before LaHood spoke in the Tampa Convention Center, an anguished Kristen Murphy addressed the 300 people in attendance.

“We don’t need Florida to do any more studies,” the Naples resident said. “Our children died a preventable death.” She and the other parents on the dais gave heartbreaking testimony to the vitality and spark of their children, all of whom died in car crashes caused by motorists whose attention was focused on their cellphones instead of the road.

Chelsey Murphy, 19 and four weeks pregnant, was killed by such a driver while crossing U.S. 41 in Naples in March of 2010. “I never in a million years thought I would bury a child due to a simple little device,” Kristen Murphy continued. “My life will never be normal. It will never be the same again.”

Russell Herd lost his 26-year-old engaged daughter Heather in 2008, when she was killed by a tractor-trailer truck driver who was texting while driving and slammed into nine cars on U.S. 27 in Florida.

“It’s the worst nightmare a parent can have,” he told the crowd at the Convention Center. “I want you to think about the Heather who exists in your life. I want you to think about their wishes, and how each of us has the power to end the sorry, each of us has the power to end the pain, each of us has the power in our hands to end distracted driving.”

The grieving parents gave a human face to the numbing statistics about the dangers of distracted driving. Over 3,000 Americans died in 2010 due to “distraction-affected crashes,” and an additional 416,000 were injured.

Secretary LaHood was one of the featured speakers at the day-long forum. He said his main mission was to inspire Florida residents to contact their state representatives in support of distracted driving legislation. Florida is on the extremely short list of states that have no restrictions on the use of cellphones while driving. Currently, 39 states ban text messaging for all drivers. Another five states ban only novice drivers from texting.

It’s not as if FL legislators haven’t attempted to address the problem. Bills have been proposed in Tallahassee since 2002, but for a variety of reasons none has passed. Some of those failures can be traced to influential lawmakers who didn’t favor such legislation, including Fort Lauderdale state Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff and House Speaker Dean Cannon. But Bogdanoff lost her re-election bid to Democrat Maria Sachs, and Cannon has been term-limited out of office.

Boca Raton House Democrat Irv Slosberg is co-sponsoring a bill with Sarasota House Republican Doug Holder that would ban handheld electronics use by drivers 18 and younger. He says the odds of his bill getting through are about “50-50, maybe 40-60.”

“I’m sure Speaker [Will] Weatherford is thinking about which way to go,” Slosberg says about the new leader of the Florida House, adding that he thinks it might have a fighting chance. “With Speaker Cannon there was just no listening, but I think Speaker Weatherford is going to listen.”

Weatherford has said that he would be open to discussing specific plans, but had concerns about “individual rights.” That could be a bad omen for Slosberg, as it echoes Dean Cannon’s oft-stated concerns about balancing individual rights with public safety.

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