ORLANDO, Fla. – A loud boom, a severe jolt and sharp pain.
“The first thing I thought was 'Wow, that was a hard hit,'” said Jill Fritch. “Second thing I thought was, 'I'm really hurt.'”
Fritch said that's what she remembers after she was involved in a crash on Colonial Drive in Orange County in October of 2016. She was stopped in traffic when her SUV was rear-ended by the driver of a truck hauling lawn equipment. That was the first crash. Less than four months later, Fritch was hit again, this time, on Semoran Boulevard.
“The first driver did not admit it to the police officers when he was asked,” Fritch said. “His passenger did admit that the driver was texting. The second accident -- the 19-year-old woman was on her phone. [She] dropped the phone, reached down for the phone and the officer thinks she hit the accelerator.”
Fritch's October crash left her bumped and bruised and in need of physical therapy. The second crash in mid-February 2017 happened the day after she got her car back from the first crash. This time was much worse. Fritch's SUV spun through three lanes of traffic. When the vehicle finally came to rest, her mother was trapped in the passenger seat and Fritch was unconscious.
“I became unresponsive in my vehicle,” she said. “I was put in the ambulance, was unresponsive. In the ER, unresponsive.”
The impact from the car that hit Fritch and her mother was so severe that it knocked the diamond out of her wedding ring.
“I was hit hard enough that the stone completely came out of the setting of my ring,” Fritch said. “The next day, my mother gave it to me and told me the firefighters had found this in my car.”
The two crashes in less than four months were caused by distracted drivers, Fritch said.
She was just one of thousands of drivers involved in crashes in Orange County in 2016 that according to the Florida Department of Safety and Motor Vehicles were caused by distracted driving. Since state lawmakers passed a law mandating secondary enforcement of texting and driving in 2013, crashes and fatalities haven’t gone down, but instead have gone up -- a lot.
Over the summer, News 6 requested distracted driving crash statistics from the State of Florida from 2013 through 2017. After combing through more than 41,000 records the results were surprising.
By the numbers: Data for Central Florida counties shows that between 2013 and 2017, distracted driving crashes have increased by 33 percent. In 2013, Orange County had 5,390 distracted driving crashes. By 2016, when Fritch was involved in her first crash, that number had climbed to 6,100. Last year, there were 6,972 distracted driving crashes in the county.
“It’d be very fair to say that Orange County is a very dangerous place to drive,” said ValuePenguin research analyst Bailey Peterson.
Peterson’s company, ValuePenguin.com, is a consumer research group that was also looking into why Florida had so many crashes linked to distracted driving. Peterson authored a study that looked at all 67 Florida counties and noticed, just like News 6 had, that Orange County stood out.
“Judging from our study, Orange County drivers are two and a half times more likely to get into a distracted driving crash than the average Floridian,” Peterson said. “If you were to just compare large counties in Florida, say those with over a million residents, Orange County would actually come up as the number one worst in our ranking criteria.”
Orange County isn’t just the worst county in the state for distracted driving crashes, for the past five years it has also led the state in distracted-driving deaths. In 2013, 19 vehicle fatalities in Orange County were linked to distracted driving, according to the FHSMV. By 2017, that number had jumped to 31. Over those five years, 106 people have died in Orange County because of distracted driving.
How Orange County compares to Florida's other counties: Other large counties aren’t doing well, either. In 2014, Miami-Dade County had 29 people killed in distracted driving crashes. In 2016, Hillsborough County hit a high of 26 people dying in distracted driving wrecks. Even smaller counties like Marion County have seen increases. According to FHSMV records, in 2013, one person in Marion was killed in a crash linked to distracted driving; in 2016, that number had jumped to 14.
“We know that it kills and it kills innocent people on our roadways and our citizens,” said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said of distracted driving during a recent interview with News 6.
Demings, soon to be Orange County Mayor Demings, has been a strong supporter of the News 6 Driving Change initiative pushing for a tougher texting and driving law.
“For law enforcement, our ultimate goal is to really improve the safety of our roadways,” Demings said. “One of the ways that we can do that is to change the secondary-degree violation of texting while driving to a primary violation.”
Florida is one of four states in the U.S. that still uses secondary enforcement to curtail texting and driving. That means law enforcement officers can’t pull over drivers for reading or typing on a cellphone unless they witness the driver breaking another law first.
“In many cases, we're using the careless driving statute to stop individuals.” Demings said. “Law enforcement officers have to do a work-around in order to stop drivers who are driving poorly because they are distracted.”
However, even the work-around isn’t really working.
According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 74 tickets were written in Orange County in 2017 for texting and driving. FHSMV reports the Orange County Sheriff’s Office wrote 32 of those tickets, the Florida Highway Patrol wrote 20, and city law enforcement wrote 22 more. But research provided by the Sheriff's Office shows his deputies wrote 149 careless driving tickets in 2017 and another 130 so far in 2018.
“I know that it's a significant problem,” Demings said. “As a society we have become more dependent now on cellular devices. It has also resulted in the increase in the risk exposure of traffic crashes. And that's what we're trying to reduce.”
Since the secondary law went into effect, 1,109 Floridians have been killed in crashes related to distracted driving. In 2013, the state tallied 39,143 crashes linked to distracted driving, but by 2017, that number had swelled to 50,190, which is an increase of 28 percent.
Last year, the Florida Legislature came within one Senate committee of putting a vote to both chambers of the State for a change in the law to make texting and driving a primary violation. House members passed their version of a bill (HB-33) by a vote of 112-2. However, the Senate version, SB 90, ran into a roadblock when State Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) refused to allow debate on that bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Bradley, who inherited the chair of the committee after State Sen. Jack Latvala’s resignation, cited the protection of “individual rights against unnecessary government intrusion” and “certain bedrock principles” as some of the reasons for his opposition. Bradley told News 6’s Matt Austin earlier this year, “I’m open to having discussions next session about ways we can deal with distracted driving” despite spiking the Senate distracted driving bill in 2018.
And Bradley isn’t alone – other Tallahassee politicians have resisted a stronger texting and driving bill for different reasons. State Sen. Bobby Powell (D-West Palm Beach) has gone on the record opposing any laws that would give law enforcement another opportunity to pull over minorities.
“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 told News 6 last year.
Demings said law enforcement agency have policies against racially profiling to prevent abuse of power.
“We have early warning systems built into our internal affairs and professional standards operations now, where we can address the law enforcement officer who may be inappropriately stopping people,” Demings said.
The future mayor of Orange County said in order to see a successful distracted driving bill, the state's leadership in Tallahassee will also have to change.
“It's all of about leadership and we're going to have a change in leadership in terms of the governor and the speaker of the House and the president of the Florida Senate,” Demings said. “What has prevented this from passing, quite frankly, has been the lack of leadership in Tallahassee and that's about to change."
If you have a question or comment about News 6′s statewide campaign for a tougher distracted driving law for Florida (Driving Change), send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call contact us at 407-521-1404.