Sheriff Demings talks about Orange County's distracted driving record

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings and public information office Jeff Williamson look over crash numbers with News 6 anchor Matt Austin.

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Earlier this year, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles released data for last year's distracted driving crashes and fatalities for every county in the state. News 6 requested more crash records going back to 2013. After going through four years of data, News 6 discovered crashes were up 28 percent over a five-year period, and for every year except one, Orange County led the state in both the number of distracted driving crashes and distracted driving fatalities.

One of the root problems according to law enforcement officials, is tourism. Millions of people visit Orlando and unlike other popular tourist destinations like London, New York or even Las Vegas, public transportation isn’t very efficient getting tourists from one theme park to another, International Drive or even downtown. And since walking simply isn’t an option, everyone drives.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings recently spoke to News 6 about the county's distracted driving record. The sheriff pointed out that in 2017, 72 million tourists visited Orlando. Considering 116.5 million people visited the entire state in 2017 that means 62 percent of all of Florida's tourists visited Orlando last year.

[By the numbers: Orange County most dangerous place in Florida for distracted driving]

Florida is just one of four states that enforces texting and driving as a secondary offense, which 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. According to FHSMV, there were only 74 tickets specifically written by state, county and city police in Orange County in 2017 for texting and driving. Orange County deputies wrote 32 of those tickets, but they also wrote an additional 149 for careless driving and another 130 so far this year.

In the final days of last month, News 6 anchor Matt Austin sat down for a one-on-one interview with Demings. The sheriff is finishing out his career in law enforcement, transferring to politics as he’ll take over as mayor of Orange County after the November election.

Here’s an edited version of that interview:

Austin: I know texting and driving has been an issue for you. It's been a thorn in the side for a lot of law enforcement for a lot of years. So can you give us an update? What is it like trying to enforce texting and driving these days in the state of Florida? 

Demings: Really for law enforcement our ultimate goal is to really improve the safety of our roadways. One of the ways that we can do that is to change the secondary degree violation of texting while driving to a primary violation. 

We have written about 360 or so citations in 2017 and so far in 2018 for violations related to texting and driving. 

Austin: So 360 tickets in two years? Why are there so few tickets? 

Demings: Law enforcement officers have to do a work around in order to stop drivers who are driving poorly because they are distracted. Today we have to wait and observe a primary violation other than the texting while driving in order to stop the vehicle. So in many cases we're using the careless driving statute to stop individuals. But really, we really need to do more because I am confident that the majority of the traffic crashes that we have are somehow related to distracted driving. I've seen data that suggest that within the recent years, over 46,000 of our crashes are related to distracted driving.

Austin: Yeah, the numbers are staggering. The numbers we got from the state were almost 7,000 distracted driving crashes in 2017 [in Orange County]. That sounds like a huge number. Is that possible? 

Demings: I think it's very possible because the numbers I cited from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is a nationwide number. So having 7,000 or 8,000 here within Orange County, it's even far worse than that. We know that because there's no way for us to really know what individuals are doing because there's no way for us to track that at this point. I believe when I see people who are driving poorly and I'm able to get up on them in my unmarked vehicle, oftentimes I can clearly see that they have a cellular device or some other type of device in their hand. They're not paying attention, they're going too slow, going too fast, weaving within their lanes, crossing the lanes, etc. So I know that it's a significant problem. And really the best way that we can do about it is make it a primary offense. 

Austin: In 2013 the number of distracted driving crashes were down here [Austin points to a chart from our infographic with the number of distracted driving crashes at 39,143]. That's when they made the law. Today it's up 28 percent [the chart shows 2017 distracted driving crashes at 50,190]. So it doesn't seem like the law is really having much of an impact on distracted driving. 

Demings: It's not having a significant impact because it's not a primary offense. 

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. Sometimes citizens don't even use the full extent of the technology that they have with their existing device because of convenience. They have the Bluetooth capabilities or voice capabilities and they don't even use it because it's more convenient just to put the phone in a hand and then use the device itself. 

And I realize that some legislators believe that if [a stronger] law passes it's going to further create opportunities for racial profiling by law enforcement officers. But having been a lawman now for well over 37 years, I can tell you that our law enforcement officers aren't out stopping people because of their race. They stop people primarily because of the violations of law that they observe. And we just really have to improve our police community relations in order to convince our legislators that that's not what this is all about. 

Austin: You're about to move from the law enforcement side to the more politicians side of things. What do you think these politicians are doing wrong that is keeping them from giving us what 43 other states in America have which is primary enforcement? 

Demings: 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. As a result of that, I believe that will create some opportunities for other discussions. What has prevented this from passing, quite frankly, has been the lack of leadership in Tallahassee and that's about to change. 

Austin: When politicians say we can't do a full primary offense basically because we don't trust law enforcement officers to do their jobs, isn't that sort of a slap in the face to you guys?

Demings: It is but that's something that we have to overcome. We all are now mandated to have bias-based policing training. We all have policies against racial profiling. And so we have institutionalized that now within our law enforcement profession. And we still have the burden of keeping the public safe. So even when we do a traffic stop they are calling in now the race of the person, the gender of the person if it's obvious and that's captured in our databases. So if we had a law enforcement officer who seems to be overly targeting people or what have you, 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. 

The best thing that we could do if the law passes is to make certain that all of those protocols and prevention strategies are in place to hold our personnel accountable. 

Austin: Is there anything on a county level that counties can do to give more teeth to these laws? I know it can be tricky in trying to go through the state. Have you ever looked into that? 

Demings: It is my goal to be very active in legislative initiatives within the state of Florida as well as the nation. And so through the Florida Association of Counties and the [Florida League of] Mayors, I will continue my advocacy to make certain that our communities are as safe as they can possibly be. Public safety has been part of my DNA now for nearly four decades and so nothing will change in that regard. I'll just be doing it from a different vantage point. 

About the Authors:

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.

Donovan is WKMG-TV's executive producer of digital enterprise