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Florida legislators crack down on distracted driving

Police officers will now be able to pull over drivers as a primary offense, effective July 1. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

The No. 1 cause of death among college students is from motor vehicle accidents due to distracted driving. In 2016, more than 50,000 Floridians were involved in distracted driving accidents, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

The Florida Legislature is trying to reduce the number with the recent passage of the distracted driving bill, which will be effective July 1. Cellphone usage while driving becomes a primary offense.

Under the current law, cellphone usage while driving is a secondary offense, meaning a driver would need to be pulled over for a primary violation, such as speeding. This means that Floridians have the possibility of being fined for distracted driving for the first time as a single offense.

The only exception to the law is if drivers are using their phones at a full stop.

Senior Associate Vice President Paul Atchley is a USF psychology professor who has devoted over 25 years to distracted driving research.

Atchley started his research in the late ‘90s when he focused his attention on distracted driving and adults. However, when cellphones became popular, he noticed that young people were crashing at the same rate.

Iowa, Ohio, Nebraska, South Dakota and Florida are the only states that do not have distracted driving as a primary offense.

“One of the key enforcements of anti-distracted driving is that police officers will now have the ability to stop individuals if they see them distracted as opposed to just fining or writing a ticket when they are pulled over for something else,” Atchley said.

After years of drinking and driving seminars and raising awareness for distracted driving, it makes one wonder why it took so long to strengthen the laws.

However, to Atchley, it’s not that simple.

Based on what he has seen in different state legislatures, these laws are difficult to pass because people feel as if their rights are being taken away.

“Many individuals feel that what happens in their car is their own personal freedom,” Atchley said.

Advocates, such as parents who have lost children to distracted driving, work with the Florida Legislature to try and pass laws such as this one, which could be considered “unpopular” to the general public.

Although he has not done research in Tampa specifically, Atchley said the distracted driving rates in Florida are among the highest in the country. Florida is subjected to more crashes because of its traffic density, freeways and higher speeds, according to Atchley.

“There has been an increase in crash rates overall, especially since Florida roads are noted to be risky,” Atchley said.

The new law will not solve the entire distracted driving issue, but Atchley said there have been a number of studies that show these enforced laws lead to a reduction in distracted driving and crash rates.

“Phones have heavily become a part of our lives and it is becoming difficult for people to put them down,” Atchley said. “Nearly 10 percent of the population is behaviorally addicted to their cellphone.

“Even though there have been safety improvements in vehicles, crash rates are still increasing because of distracted driving.”