SOUTHWEST FLORIDA - It's been nearly a year since Florida's texting while driving ban went into effect.
Is it truly useful or useless? WINK News investigated how well it's being enforced statewide and on southwest Florida roads.
Picture after picture, Jay Anderson with Stay Alive, Just Drive catches drivers at red lights: feet on the brakes, hands on their phones.
Etiquette consultant Lorielle Stuart spots them, too."I would count how many people would be on their cell phone going by," Stuart said. "I'd say 8 out of 10 are on their cell phones."
Under Florida's texting law, they're not doing anything wrong until they hit the gas.
"Have I used my cell phone while driving? Yes," Stuart admitted.
She's not alone.
It's hard to forget the video caught by Fort Myers Police in January. A driver admitted he was textingwhen he crashed into a sign, a tree, and flipped his car.
We reviewed reports from all over southwest Florida. How about this one: a Punta Gorda officer pulled over a 20-year-old for speeding.She was looking at her phone while driving and he said she was still texting when he walked to her window. It's not just young people getting tickets. We've seen ages up to 50.
So, a year after going into effect, iis the texting ban a benefit or a bust? While Punta Gorda Police Chief Butch Arenal says it has increased awareness, "From an enforcement perspective," he said,"it's really not good."
Florida is one of just five states where texting while driving is not a primary offense. If an officer doesn't catch you for reckless or careless driving, or, spot you breaking another law, they can't do much of anything.
"I think you're seeing a significant lack in enforcement," Arenal said. "Secondary offenses, as they were with seat belts, are problematic for us."
Between October 2013 and June of this year, officers issued 1,312 texting tickets statewide. Lee County drivers got 68, ranking it the 5th highest in the state.
At this rate, Florida officers could hand out nearly 1,800 tickets by October. That's not many in a year if you compare that to other citations like failure to dim lights (3,056), following too close (18,276), or, improper backing (21,376.)
So, what's the hangup on the secondary offense? "The problem is, that's misdirection of the public," Arenal said. "You pull them over, you go to the front window and say, hi, I pulled you over for a license plate infraction. Oh, and by the way, you were texting. The public is not dumb."
"It's not the law," Arenal said. "It's more of a public information campaign and if that's what we are going to do, let's do that."
Can our legislators give this law more teeth? We posed the question.
We've only heard back from State Representative Heather Fitzenhagen. She tells WINK News "I too know that texting on Florida's roads has not been eliminated. However, we have this additional tool (the law) which is a step in the right direction. As with many public safety issues, I believe the best course of action is education. We have been able to significantly impact road safety with campaign against drunk driving and for seat belts. Changing habits and mindsets can be a slow process."
Some lawmakers have already proposed bills to make texting a primary offense. But remember, it took them several years to pass the current bill.