OMG: Texting, driving no longer a LOL moment

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I’m writing this column with crossed fingers, which isn’t easy, but in this case, it’s necessary. Florida’s law to ban texting while driving finally has some real teeth. Along with everyone else, I can only hope that the message gets through.

Color me skeptical, at least at first.

I drive a lot on Interstate 4 in Hillsborough and Polk counties (prayers appreciated). Not a day goes by that I don’t see some buffoon tapping on their phone while zipping in and out of traffic.

I mean, geeze, that road is dangerous enough already. There hasn’t been much law enforcement could do about it, though. Texting was a secondary offense, meaning officers could cite a driver only if they stopped the offender for something else.

That changed on July 1 when texting/driving became a primary violation. However, the fines didn’t take effect until Jan. 1. Lawmakers reasoned drivers needed six months to wrap their fingers around the notion that texting while driving was BAD!

Not only is it bad, now it’s expensive, too.

A ticket for the first offense is a $30 fine, plus court costs. That could take the bill to over $100. Get caught again within five years and fine doubles while court costs spike.

While we’re on the subject, state Rep. Jackie Toledo of Tampa should take a bow. She is the Tampa Republican who co-sponsored HB107 with Democrat Emily Slosberg.

Similar bills in the past several years had promising starts but never made it to the Governor’s desk. Toledo and Slosberg made it a mission to get this needed common-sense law on the books.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, carried the water in the Senate.

The bans include any cell phone use in a school or active work zone.

“I’m a mother of five and it pains me. I am so worried about our children on our roads every day, especially in these very vulnerable areas,” Toledo said last July at a news conference to trumpet the new law.

Like I said up top, I’m skeptical about the immediate impact of the law. Texting is ingrained in society, and it will be a hard habit to break for many Florida drivers. I see it all the time on I-4.

Cars suddenly slow and impede traffic while the driver focuses on the screen and message he wants to send. Or the car begins to drift between two lanes because the driver is more concerned about the text than the car he is about to sideswipe.

Mornings, especially around school zones, can be an especially dangerous time if a driver isn’t paying attention.

Yet, until now, lawmakers always found reasons not to impose penalties for the practice, such as the legitimate concern the law could lead to racial profiling. That’s why officers have to note the race of the driver receiving the citation.

Other reasons for the delay were more frivolous. I heard concerns about restricting individual “freedom” to, I guess, text OMG as their car cartwheeled in front of an 18-wheeler barreling down the highway.

But that’s all done now.

Changing drivers’ behavior won’t happen overnight. Get into their wallets deep enough, though, and the message will sink in.

Oh, what’s the message?

Put it down, or pay up.

Joe Henderson has a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune.

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