Stop! In the name of life. News 6 anchor Matt Austin details crash

Is it time for a change to Florida's texting and driving law?

ORLANDO, Fla. – On Sept. 9, I was stopped at a traffic light on N. John Young Parkway when my car was hit from behind by another vehicle.

One moment I’m at the light, waiting for it to turn green. The next thing I know, people are standing at my window asking me if I’m OK. I had no idea what happened. I don’t recall hearing anything or seeing anything. It literally happened in the blink of an eye.

The force of the collision catapulted a part of a child car seat into the back of my skull. I was knocked unconscious and ended up with 10 staples in my head to close the wound.

The resulting concussion sidelined me from work for two weeks and turned the simplest of daily activities into grinding chores.

Aside from having a constant headache, one of the strangest effects of a concussion was losing track of time. At the hospital, I asked my wife how she had gotten there so quickly. She told me it had taken her over an hour to get to the hospital. In my mind, it felt like no more than five minutes.

I also suffered from dizziness, an aversion to bright light and sleeping problems.

At the hospital on the night of the accident, the responding Orlando police officer told me the driver of the other vehicle admitted to him he had been texting while driving.

Strangely enough, I think I remember feeling sad instead of angry. We’re all guilty of it, whether it’s texting or looking at our phones for another reason while driving. It’s just stupid and we need to stop.

When I received the accident report a few days later, I noted there was no mention of texting by the other driver.
Then I got angry. I wondered why it wasn’t mentioned in the police report. It turns out part of the reason is because of our state laws.

The $30 Deterrent

In Florida, it’ll cost you just $30. Across our northern border in Georgia, the cost goes up to $150. In New York, it’s $243. It’s $500 in Oregon, Indiana,and Maine, $750 in Utah and can go as high as a whopping $10,000 in Alaska.

All of these amounts are examples of the fines across our nation for getting caught texting while driving. And acting strictly as a deterrent, in the state of Florida, cheaper does not necessarily translate to better.

Florida was late to the national trend of enforcing restrictions on texting while driving.While some states such as Washington, enacted legislation as early as 2007, our state officials and governor didn’t get around to enacting a law until late 2013.

If you want to call it much of a law.

“It’s inadequate because we need primary enforcement,” says state Senator Thad Altman, R- Cape Canaveral said.  “We don’t have a law banning texting in Florida. It has to be a secondary offense. If you’re driving the speed limit and not doing anything illegal, you can text all you want and not get a ticket. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’ve yet to pass a full ban on texting.”

Altman is alluding to the fact that in the state of Florida, getting caught texting while driving is a secondary offense. Florida law enforcement can’t pull you over for texting unless you’re also observed breaking another law – speeding, unsafe lane change, etc. Cops also can’t ticket you for texting unless it is observed.

In my case, even though the other driver admitted to the officer he had been texting, the officer couldn’t include that admission as part of his report.

For my case, Altman believes the logic should be simple: if the driver said he was texting, the officer should have issued him a ticket. But he’s quick to add that the absence of texting on the police report is indicative of what is happening. “They can’t do any sort of investigation and they can’t produce evidence,” Altman said. “Without evidence you don’t have much of a case in court.”

When I pitched my personal experience as a story for our newsroom and embarked on more research, my shock turned to anger as I started to understand just how impotent and dangerous our Florida texting laws are.

According to the Governors Highway Association, Florida is just one of only five states that treat texting while driving as a secondary offense (the other four are Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota). In 41 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, texting while driving is treated as a primary violation.

Fourteen states ban the use of handheld devices by drivers, 20 states won’t let school bus drivers use cell phones and 38 states have some sort of restriction for cellphone use for beginning drivers.
Florida has no such restrictions. And it’s not as if the Sunshine State was new to the game and had been first in developing texting laws. Forty other states had passed laws before Florida finally got around to their watered-down legislation.

“We’re definitely in the bottom 10 percent,” Altman said. “Out of 50 states we’re in the bottom five.” 

Getting Results

Over the next legislative session, we here at News 6 are going to be working on a series of stories regarding texting and driving laws, in an attempt to get our laws changed. We’re not doing it because I got hurt. Unfortunately, in our state, lots of people get hurt because of distracted drivers. And that’s a problem.

We’re doing it to help everyone, but my selfish reason is to give my three daughters safer roads when they’re old enough to drive.

If you or your family or your friends have been affected by texting and driving, tell us about it. Send us an email, post a note on Facebook or tag us on Twitter.

As a state, we need to do better. As a community, we think we can affect change. As a station, we’re going to do our best to get results.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning anchor Matt Austin joined the News 6 team in June 2011 and has been the evening news co-anchor since December 2013.