9 Investigates: Is Florida's texting and driving law a failure?

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Florida lawmakers banned texting while driving more than a year ago, but critics say the law is worthless because even if an officer sees you texting, you can’t be stopped unless you're also committing another violation like speeding or not wearing your seat belt.

9 Investigates asked lawmakers why it’s so hard to get something that seems so logical through the state Legislature.

A driver reading a text message killed Trisha Viccaro's son Garrett in Brevard County. With his eyes fixed on his cellphone, the driver swerved and slammed into Garrett and a friend while they fished on the Eau Gallie Causeway in 2013. The wreck killed both men. 

A year later, a bill that would outlaw all texting and driving died in committee in Tallahassee.

“If this law had come into effect years ago, my child would probably still be here,” Viccaro said.


Video: Texting while driving facts

Video: If you text and drive for 5 seconds, how far did you just travel?

PDF: Where are the most texting while driving tickets issued?


Critics like Viccaro said the current law is pointless. Passed in 2013, the current law has resulted in only 2,061 citations statewide. And across central Florida, fewer than 400 texting tickets have been issued.

Troopers see drivers texting every day. And 9 Investigates cameras caught driver after driver texting and driving on major roads across central Florida roads. But most of the time when troopers spot someone texting and driving, they can’t do anything about it.

“It does pose that frustration for law enforcement because they can’t pull them over for texting even though they are putting other people at risk,” said Sgt. Kim Montes of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Troopers say if you are going 55 mph and look down at a text for just five seconds, you've traveled the length of a football field.

“That is extremely dangerous,” Montes told Welch.

Florida is one of only five states in which texting while driving is not a primary offense. That means the driver must also commit another traffic violation before getting cited.

“It's been a real battle,” said Sen. Thad Altman of Brevard County. He has sponsored eight anti-texting bills in Tallahassee. Every one of them failed.

Welch asked Altman if lawmakers are being pressured by big communications companies – through campaign donations -- to kill the tougher legislation.

Altman insists that is not the case.

“If you talk to influential lobbyists across the board, about 90 percent of them support this bill,” Altman told Welch.

Altman is again trying to strengthen the law, during the upcoming legislative session, to make it a primary offense. He said if it’s not a primary offense, it’s not enforceable.

Florida's seat belt law went from a secondary to a primary offense after two decades and troopers told 9 Investigates that made it far easier to enforce.

Traffic records show troopers issued 135 times as many seat belt tickets than texting tickets last year. There were 279,200 seat belt violations issued, compared with 2,061 citations for texting.            

Despite the numbers and the deadly consequences that can be linked to texting and driving, Altman doubts his bill will pass.

That’s because he believes lawmakers are hesitant to adopt rules governing personal behavior.

“I think we have lawmakers that are addicted to their phones and they don’t want to vote for a law to outlaw the use of it,” Altman told Welch.

Viccaro isn’t giving up, though. She’s working with Altman and plans to share her story with lawmakers to get his bill passed this session.

“There is no reason for it not to have passed,” Viccaro said. “Save lives. Aren’t we worth it ?”

The man responsible for her son’s death pleaded guilty to careless driving, paid a $1,000 fine and lost his license for up to 10 years.

In order to pass, Altman’s bill will need the support of key state legislative leaders, both from Central Florida.

Welch reached out to state Senate President Andy Gardiner and state House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

Neither one would go on record and say whether they support the bill to change the law and make texting and driving a primary offense.  

Gardiner’s office sent a statement, saying, in part, “President Gardiner’s preference is to monitor the legislation as it moves through the Senate Committees to which he has referred it. Should the bill reach the floor, he will make a decision about his vote at that time, based on the final product.”

Crisafulli's office never even got back to us after we called multiple times.