State representative takes distracted driving to heart

Rep. Emily Slosberg lost her sister in 1996 in severe car accident

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

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - On Feb. 23, 1996, seven teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 15 years old, were crammed into the backseat of a 1995 Honda Civic. A 19-year-old and 17-year-old were sitting in the front seats.

“I looked into my twin sister’s eyes. She looked scared. We all looked scared. We didn’t say anything and about 15 seconds later we get into the crash. The next thing I know, I woke up in a hospital bed.”

State troopers would later estimate the owner of the Honda, Nicholas Copertino, was driving the tiny Japanese import around 85 to 90 mph on a 50 mph stretch of Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton.

After swerving to miss a car traveling in the same direction, Copertino lost control of his own car, which was carrying almost twice as many people as it had seat belts.

First, they hit a pole.

Then the westbound-spinning Honda crossed the median and slammed into a 1992 Acura Integra traveling in the opposite direction.

Three women in the Acura -- Petra Rettig, 31, Tamara Mikolajczak, 26, and the driver, Lisa Boccia, 33 -- were pinned in their car. It took rescue workers about 45 minutes to cut them all free.

Copertino and his front seat passenger, David Grossman, survived the crash, in part, because of dashboard airbags and the fact that they were wearing seat belts. Grossman walked away from the mangled automobiles.

Copertino was hospitalized with brain swelling, but eventually recovered from his injuries.

The seven teenagers crammed into the back of the two-door Civic, unbelted and without any airbags for protection, were either all dead or seriously injured.

Four of the teens were thrown from the vehicle. Five died at the scene: Ryan Rashidian, 15, Crystal Cordes, 14, Carolina Gill, 14, Dori Slosberg, 14, and Margaux Schehr, 13. Maribel Farinas, 14, suffered a spinal injury in the crash. She is a quadriplegic 21 years later and still needs a respirator to breathe.

Emily Slosberg, who was also 14 years old in 1996, suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken pelvis and a broken leg. As a result of the accident, she spent 10 days in the hospital, part of it on a respirator. Emily was too severely injured to attend her twin sister Dori’s funeral.

“There’s nothing that I can do to go back and get my sister to come back,” Slosberg recently told News 6. “I’ll never get her back. But it’s what I can do after to honor her memory and I’m going to do everything I can.”

Carrying the Torch
Emily Slosberg is honoring her sister in a number of ways. For 10 years, she was the CEO of the Dori Slosberg Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 2004 to focus on traffic safety. In November of 2016, Slosberg won an uncontested seat for State Representative in District 91 (representing Boca Raton and other parts of Palm Beach County). Emily’s father, Irv Slosberg, held that seat since 2012 (he gave it up for an unsuccessful 2016 run in the State Senate).

“Every day I know what my mission is,” the younger Slosberg said. “I’m not confused, some legislators come up for certain reasons, and I have a personal reason. I have no confusion and I’m totally focused.”

Like her father, Emily Slosberg’s focus is to make roads safer for Floridians. For Irv Slosberg, first elected to the Florida House in 2000, it was always about driver’s safety. In 2009, the Florida Legislature passed Slosberg’s mandatory seat belt bill putting the Dori Slosberg and Katie Marchetti Safety Belt Law on the desk of then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Slosberg was also one of the first legislators who tried to strengthen Florida’s current texting law, which has been on the books since 2013.

Now it’s Emily’s turn to take up the fight.

“We have an epidemic on the roads,” she told News 6. “I believe that texting and driving, distracted driving, is a major cause of driving fatalities.”

As part of their annual Traffic Safety Culture Index, last month, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released statistics exclusively focused on young millennials. The group’s conclusion: “Young millennials top [the] list of worst behaved drivers.”

Ouch.

According to AAA, 88 percent of the 19- to 24-year-old millennials interviewed for the survey admitted they had engaged in at least one of the following actions in the previous 30 days that the foundation deemed “dangerous driving behavior”: speeding, red light running or texting behind the wheel.

“Alarmingly, some of the drivers ages 19-24 believe that their dangerous driving behavior is acceptable,” said Dr. David Yang, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety executive director. “It’s critical that these drivers understand the potentially deadly consequences of engaging in these types of behaviors and that they change their behavior and attitudes in order to reverse the growing number of fatalities on U.S. roads.”

“These distracted drivers are just as dangerous as drunk drivers,” says Slosberg.

Currently in our state, texting while driving is a secondary offense, meaning that law enforcement can pull you over for texting only if an officer sees you committing another traffic violation. Slosberg’s main goal isn’t to replace our law, it’s to strengthen it.

Creative Problem Solving
As a freshman state representative, Emily Slosberg recently tried using an unconventional political tactic to kick-start the process of getting a tougher texting law in place. Slosberg wanted to introduce a so-called “municipality bill” that would make texting and driving in her district of Palm Beach County a primary offense, essentially skirting state law restrictions that facilitate texting and driving being enforced as a secondary offense.

“All municipalities are pre-empted from passing their own conflicting laws because the state wants uniformity unless there’s express permission,” says Slosberg. “My local bill is giving express authorization for our county to adopt the ordinance.”

Slosberg told News 6 she came up with the idea after studying how other cities launched their own initiatives pushing for tougher laws than the ones mandated by their states. She came up with her idea after researching Chicago’s fight with the state of Illinois.

In 2005, Chicago enacted a ban on the use of handheld devices while driving, forcing motorists to go hands-free, a full eight years before the state followed suit. At the time, Chicago was the biggest city in America to undertake enforcing their own texting and driving law. The city’s legislation followed in the footsteps of Brooklyn, Ohio, the first municipality in America to ban handheld cellphone use by drivers in 1999.

Slosberg had hoped to have a majority of her local Senate and House members approve her legislation and then present it to committees in Tallahassee. In essence, her bill still would have to go through the same legislative process as a statewide bill, but because it was a local ordinance and not a statewide law, Slosberg hoped she’d run into less political opposition.

She didn’t.

She told News 6 that on the night she planned to present her bill to her colleagues, State Sen.Bobby Powell, the chair of the local Palm County delegation, blocked her from speaking to her colleagues. Slosberg was forced to make her presentation during public testimony and in her words, leadership attempted to “add insult to injury” by adjourning before she had a chance to speak.

Surrounded on All Sides
Slosberg's fight to get a tougher texting and driving law on the books in Florida isn’t just on one front; it’s actually on three.

On the idea of getting her “municipality” legislation pushed through, Palm Beach County put the kibosh on that effort in late December when Dawn Wynn, senior assistant county attorney, at the request for clarification from Powell, issued an opinion on Slosberg’s proposal.

In her response, Wynn included this quote from Section 316.007, Florida Statutes, referring to the State Uniform Traffic Control:

“According to statute, traffic laws shall be uniform throughout the state, including all political subdivisions and municipalities therein, and no local authority shall enact an ordinance on a matter covered by this statute unless expressly authorized. The local bills which were submitted on this subject would create an exception to the statute and would be a major change in state uniform traffic control policy.”

There could be some room for interpretation of the statute, but Wynn’s next sentences clarified the state guidelines and the county’s position.

“A secondary offense is an offense for which a driver or a passenger can receive a citation but only after a driver has been pulled over for a primary offense.

“A primary offense is an offense for which a law enforcement officer can stop a car and issue a citation for violating Chapters 316, 320 or 322 of the Florida Statutes.

“Again, a change from secondary to primary would create an exception to the State’s uniform traffic control policy.”

In layman’s terms, Wynn affirmed that state law trumps local, city or county laws from creating exceptions, even with express permission. Imagine driving in one city where seat belts weren’t mandatory and then crossing over into another where they were. That would create havoc and for most drivers, the interpretation of unfair enforcement.

For Slosberg, strike one.

Her next battlefront: philosophical differences with state political leadership of just how much of a role government should play in a citizen’s daily life.

“Florida has always had a Conservative Libertarian bent,” says Rep. Richard Stark, a four-year congressman serving the southern part of Broward County.

It’s a well-known but rarely spoken-about reality that many of the Republican leaders in both the Florida House and the Senate are also Libertarians. Stronger enforcement on texting and driving would be seen by these political leaders as infringing upon those personal freedoms. And though Stark points out that “There are numerous Republicans who recognize this is a safety issue,” the simple fact is that many of them aren’t budging. Stark succinctly sums up the Conservative Libertarian ideology with this statement: “It’s my personal freedom and we would like to not have that infringed upon.”

Strike two.

And then there’s the ugly reality of racism.

In January, Powell told News 6 reporter Vanessa Araiza that while he was in favor of stricter regulation of texting and driving, he was opposed to any more laws that would give law enforcement another vehicle to pull over African-Americans or Hispanics because of the potential for exploitation.

“I think right now, the way it’s structured, until it’s structured in a manner that can eliminate some of the abuse, I couldn’t support it being a primary offense,” Powell says. “As a secondary offense, I supported it and I think that’s the best way for us to look at it right now in the state of Florida. Until we have different measures to change that, that’s what I support.”

Stark concurs with his Senate colleague. “I have great empathy. I really understand that issue,” he told News 6. “I’m going to do my best to work with the Black Caucus and see what we can do.”

But while Stark sees the issue as a potential problem and is looking for a compromise, two local law enforcement leaders we spoke with don’t endorse Powell’s side of the argument.

“I really don’t buy that,” says Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings. “I don’t stop someone based upon what color of their skin. And most law enforcement officers don’t stop people based upon the color of their skin. They stop people based on the violation of law they observed.”

“I can understand the sentiment of the minority community thinking any law that was passed could be used against them by law enforcement,” says Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood. But Chitwood also adds “The ultimate goal here is to keep the motoring public and the pedestrian public as safe as humanly possible.”

For Slosberg, the potential for abuse of power by law enforcement when dealing with minorities is her third strike as she has to convince members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus (there are about 25 of them) that stricter enforcement will benefit safety for all Floridians and outweigh the potential for abuse or racial profiling.

Where Do We Stand
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2015, fatalities caused by distracted drivers across the country increased 8.8 percent over the prior year, jumping from 3,197 to 3,477.

Closer to home, the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles division noted that in 2015, distracted driving played a role in 16.22 percent of injuries from crashes and 7.34 percent of all statewide fatal accidents.

The actual Florida numbers for last year: 39,468 people injured and 216 more killed because of distracted drivers.

That last statistic is chilling when you consider this: In 2011, just four years prior, Florida reported one-tenth the amount of deaths on its roads (21) caused by distracted driving. Even more disturbing: according to the FHSMV, police around the state have only issued 3,488 distracted driving citations during the first 14  months the new law went into effect (between Oct. 1, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2015).

And the problem could be even worse than any of us really know: A study published in the American Journal of Public Health (one of the first of its kind to study distracted driving) stated there is a lot of “underreporting” of the problem since officers have to typically rely on a driver’s admission of texting as the cause of the accident.
When we spoke to Stark earlier this year, he told News 6 that a stronger anti-texting bill had a chance of passing in the Senate, but not in the House. Fast-forward two months and that’s exactly what seems to be unfolding: of the two bills introduced in the House (HB 47 and HB 69) and the two others in the Senate (SB 1742 and SB 144), only SB 144 has had any sort of movement through subcommittees.

As of March 29, 2017, SB 144 has passed through two subcommittees with two more to go.

When we asked about movement in the House on its companion bill HB 69, Slosberg told us that Rep. Brad Drake (R-Eucheeanna), chair of the Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee, has her bill “Double-locked, in a drawer. It will never see daylight.”

 

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