School zones and texting: It's time to change the law

Palm Bay crossing guard showcases problem to News 6

By Matt Austin, Donovan Myrie - Investigative/Special Projects Producer

PALM BAY, Fla. - For students from Southwest Middle School in Palm Bay, the intersection of Malabar Road and Eldron Boulevard is Joanne Howell’s turf. A retired aerospace worker, Joanne has worked as a crossing guard for the Palm Bay Police Department for the last two years.

And although Palm Bay seems like an idyllic small Florida city by the sea, like many others in this community of 111,000 residents, Joanne is worried.

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“It’s worse and worse and worse every year,” she says.

Joanne is talking about is texting and driving. She sees it a lot while running around town doing her errands. But she’s especially concerned about the pervasiveness of drivers texting behind the wheel in and around school zones.

Her school zones.

“We have distracted drivers like you can’t imagine, she says. “Seventy-five percent of what you see – they’re texting, they’re talking, they have headphones in because they’re listening to music. And it’s scary. It’s very scary.”

On a recent Thursday afternoon, News 6 spent an afternoon with Joanne at her post. We were there to record video of her with her students for this story.

We saw great interaction between Joanne, her partner, and the teenagers she sees at least twice a day, every school day.

However, what we didn’t expect was to see Joanne pointing out to us the cars whizzing up and down busy Malabar Road with drivers using their phones. At one point in the afternoon, she pointed out three drivers in less than 15 seconds.

“I believe texting and driving is just as dangerous as and in some cases more dangerous than a DUI,” says Palm Bay Police Chief Mark Renkens. Renkens, who celebrates his 27th year with the department this Friday, remembers when, as a patrol officer, phones weren’t even a factor when driving a car. He’s especially weary of information overload: drivers will have a radio on, be chatting with a passenger, and then receive a text.

“A lot of us will think it’s only going to take me a second – just read this text real quick and I’ll be good,” he says. But Renkens knows better. He cautions “You shouldn’t be texting at all when you’re driving. Period.”

An Insipid Law

Howell puts the blame of the endemic use of smartphones by Floridia nd behind the wheel squarely on the shoulders of state politicians. Passed as a secondary offense in 2013, law enforcement can’t pull you over unless they see you break another law. And when they do, a first offense will cost you just $30. And as of right now, there’s no escalated penalty for texting in a school zone.

“It’s a very bad situation,” she says. “It’s one that’s going to continue to get worse unless lawmakers crackdown and say yeah, ok, I’m mad as heck and I’m not going to take it anymore and we need to put a stop to this.”

In the spring of 2016, State Senator Geri Thompson tried to do just that. Thompson, along with State Representative Irving Slosberg (D-91 Delray Beach) introduced a bill to restrict texting and driving in a school zone.

“My bill would have made it a primary offense if you’re texting and driving to protect the life and to protect the safety of our children,” Thompson recently told News 6.    

In fact, Thompson introduced a bill that would make texting in a school zone a primary offense not once, but twice (in both 2015 and 2016). Both bills died in committee, never reaching the house floor for a vote.

“So many times bills do not come out of committee; many times they’re not even placed on the agenda because you have a group of individuals from various places – could be business – that are opposed to it and convince the chair not to put it on the agenda.”

Howell doesn’t care much for the politics; she just wants to see change.

“Texting and driving needs to be a primary offense with a big ticket to it. A big dollar fee attached to it. And maybe even community service along with it. Too many people have been maimed and mutilated and killed. It’s not worth it.”

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