Kim Wright, mother of Justin Mitchell who was killed by a driver reading a text on April 1, 2013, in Brevard County holds a poster cover with pictures of her son inside a gazebo which is a memorial in her son’s name. (Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)

By Erika Pesantes and John Maines Sun Sentinel

Florida is one of the most lenient states in the nation when it comes to texting and driving, and crashes are skyrocketing as people take their eyes off the road.

Legislation to make Florida’s law tougher has failed repeatedly, and the state has no system to track how often cellphones lead to crashes. But an analysis of 3 million crashes by the South Florida Sun Sentinel found that collisions typical of texting and driving are increasing at a staggering rate.

While the total number of accidents increased by 11 percent from 2013 to 2016, crashes caused by careless driving rose by as much as four times that amount – even after accounting for more cars on the road.

  • Failing to stay in the proper lane, up 50 percent.
  • Running a stop sign, up 48 percent.
  • Sideswiping a car headed in the same direction, up 40 percent.
  • Improperly passing another vehicle, up 47 percent.
  • Ignoring road signs or markings, up 34 percent.

It’s an epidemic, frankly,” said Keyna Cory, coordinator for the Florida Don’t Text and Drive Coalition. Cory has no doubt that the sharp rise in accidents is the result of texting and cellphone use.

“As you drive down the road in South Florida, they’re driving in somebody else’s lane,” she said. “We all know young people do it, but I’m now seeing older people doing it as well.”

Yet Florida has little idea how often drivers wreck while texting. Unless someone is killed, police typically do not report whether a cellphone was involved, and drivers rarely acknowledge it.

Official records cite phones in less than 1 percent of crashes in South Florida from 2013 to 2016, records from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles show.

“Crash data doesn’t really paint the true picture of it,” said Miami Shores Police Chief Kevin Lystad, president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association. “If you drive anywhere in South Florida, you see people texting and just not paying attention to the road.”

Kim Wright, mother of Justin Mitchell, who was killed by a driver reading a text on April 1, 2013,
in Brevard County, cherishes a collage with pictures of her son. (Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)

“Anything that takes the eyes off their forward roadway is extremely dangerous,” said Charlie Klauer, research scientist at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “And that message is not getting through unfortunately.”

Taking your eyes off the road when texting makes you six times more likely to crash, Klauer said. And the possibility is rising as phones become more prevalent.

According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of Americans owned a cellphone in 2016, and 77 percent owned a smartphone, which is easier to use for texting than flip phones of the past.

Five years earlier, 35 percent of Americans had smartphones.

Texting drivers have become so common that police often mistake them for drunken drivers. When cops stop a driver who’s weaving, they’re often surprised to find a sober motorist — engrossed in their phone.

“The driving pattern for texting and driving, social media and driving, total distracted driving mirrors a real impaired driver,” said Broward Sheriff’s Detective Don Huneke, who previously worked on the agency’s DUI task force, targeting drunken drivers and educating the community.

“I don’t think they understand the magnitude of an accident anywhere between 35 and 50 miles per hour,” Huneke said. “A head-on impact at 37 miles per hour, the aorta can be ripped from the heart.”

Florida has largely prevented police officers from combating the problem. Under Florida law, officers cannot pull over a driver simply for texting while driving. They need another reason to stop the car first.

Most states make texting and driving a “primary offense,” meaning a cop can stop a driver immediately if he sees the person texting. Only six states have laws as lax as Florida’s: Arizona, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.

Florida State University Police Chief David Perry, vice president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, said officers’ hands are tied because they have no authority to stop drivers who are texting. “We see it every day, every time we as law enforcement officers are behind the wheel performing our duties.”

State Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, has co-sponsored a bill to make texting while driving a primary offense. (Jim Rassol / Sun Sentinel)

Perry’s group supports a bill working its way through the Legislature that would make texting a primary offense. But even the new law would leave Florida behind other states. Texting would remain a non-moving violation; the fine would be unchanged at $30; and police still would need a search warrant to inspect a driver’s phone to confirm that texting was involved.

In contrast, Oregon beefed up its law last year and made it illegal to hold electronic devices such as cellphones, tablets or GPS devices while driving. First-time offenders who did not cause a crash can be fined up to $1,000. The maximum fine increases to $2,500 if a crash occurred.

Florida’s law would be closer to Alabama’s, where texting and driving is a primary offense and the maximum fine is $25.

Twenty-one states either restrict or entirely ban holding phones while driving. Some even outlaw their use while stopped at traffic lights, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit focused on reducing crash-related deaths and injuries.

The Florida bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, who nearly died in a car crash as a teenager. Her twin sister, Dori, was one of five people killed when a 19-year-old crashed a Honda Civic into another car at 90 mph on Palmetto Park Road. One other survivor was left paralyzed.

The experience made Slosberg and her father, former state Rep. Irv Slosberg, road safety advocates.

“We have an epidemic on our roadways, and we need this legislation that would stop the deadly practice of texting while driving,” Slosberg said. “You don’t have the liberty to drink and drive because it kills people. You don’t have the liberty to text and drive because it also kills people. That’s not a liberty that we have.”

Justin Mitchell and Garrett Viccaro died April 1, 2013, in a texting crash in Brevard County. They had met to fish along the Eau Gallie Causeway two days before Viccaro’s 25th birthday.

There, a driver looked away to read a text and smashed into them and another man, knocking Mitchell into the river. Mitchell had just turned 25 himself and had recently graduated from the University of Florida with an ecology and conservation degree. He had returned home to look for a job, his mother, Kim Wright, said.

The driver was fined $1,000 and his license was suspended for five years.

“It doesn’t change anything for me. Nothing will bring back my son,” Wright said. “There is nothing, no amount of money, no prison time. … There isn’t anything that is going to make you feel like you have gotten justice when your child has been killed.”

Wright hopes the texting law will pass this year, but she believes the $30 fine is too lenient. Education would have a greater effect on drivers, especially young ones, she said.

“Which politician is going to have to lose a family member before they really put some teeth in this law?” she asked.

“It’s just a very selfish society, and we’re brainwashed into thinking we have to have these devices in our hand all the time to look like we are connected. … How does that really make your life any better?”

Kim Wright, mother of Justin Mitchell who was killed by a driver reading a text on April 1, 2013, in Brevard County becomes emotional as she shares thoughts about her son and a new bill introduced in the Florida legislature that would make texting and driving a primary offense. (Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)

Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, is one of nearly 50 co-sponsors of Slosberg’s bill. He concedes that a $30 fine for first-time offenders “is not very strong,” but he feels it could still prove effective.

“Maybe if people know the police can pull them over, they’ll stop texting,” he said.

Stark has introduced texting bills each year since 2014, but none has passed. He thinks this year will be different.

“The representatives are starting to feel the pressure. I think they’re going to move,” he said. “The public has wanted this all along. Cities want it. Legislators have just been dragging their feet.”

This session, the bill has zipped through all three committees of the Florida House of Representatives and is ready for a vote in the full chamber. It must clear one more committee before a vote in the Senate.

Again this year, though, the bill has faced some resistance. Libertarians have worried about the government intruding into people’s lives, and some black legislators have warned of racial profiling and the potential for deadly encounters if traffic stops escalate.

Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, said he understands the need to save lives, but he said policymakers have to be aware of potential racism in applying the new law.

“How do you legislate implicit bias? How do you root out racism?” he asked.

“Just like I cannot fathom the loss of a child through someone drinking and driving or texting and driving, many of you all in this room can’t fathom what it means to be racially profiled,” Alexander told fellow lawmakers during a Judiciary Committee meeting. “You can’t fathom what it means to be oppressed and to be treated to very traumatic experiences. There’s never been a time in American history where the laws of this land have always been equally applied. I’ve never seen it.”

Alexander voted to support the bill anyway.

Lavon Reese, 24, was killed by a texting driver in Tallahassee on January 31, 2015. She and her cousin Jeff Peaten (right) were as close as siblings. (Courtesy of Jeff Peaten)

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, amended the Senate bill to include the tracking of drivers’ race when they are cited for texting and driving, to make sure those numbers parallel the area’s demographics.

Jeff Peaten, who is African-American and the cousin of a Tallahassee woman killed by a texting driver in January 2015, understands black lawmakers’ hesitation. He said he has experienced racial profiling himself, but “saving lives as it relates to distracted driving is too important,” he said.

After the death of his cousin, Lavon Reese, Peaten and his mother embarked on a campaign to make texting and driving a primary offense.

Reese, 24, a student at Florida State University, was killed when a texting driver — doing 89 mph in a 45-mph zone — slammed into her car.

“Every component of my family that was bright and shining and good was Lavon,” Peaten said. “She was just the apple of everyone’s eye in my family and we were incredibly close.”

Gwendolyn Reese, Lavon’s aunt, said she channeled her grief into something positive and directly related to her niece’s cause in order to heal. She will continue going to Tallahassee as long as she needs to, she said, and will keep returning as terms end and new elected officials come into office.

What the law says

Florida currently prohibits drivers from texting, emailing and instant messaging on any wireless communication device.

What’s allowed: receiving messages that are safety related, including emergency, traffic or weather alerts; reporting an emergency or criminal activity to law enforcement; and using a navigation device such as GPS, even on a cellphone.

Breaking the law for the first time is a non-moving violation resulting in a $30 fine but no points on the driver’s record. If there is a another offense within five years, it becomes a moving violation punishable by a $60 fine.

The bill in the Legislature would not change those provisions. It simply would make the law a primary offense, which would let police stop texting drivers upon spotting the violation.