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Sheriff Judd calls Florida law banning texting and driving 'useless,' but is it?

Statewide data shows FL law enforcement rarely cites drivers
Texting and driving
Posted at 4:55 PM, May 04, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-05 09:36:29-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Just 50 miles north of Tampa, in the small town of Brooksville, Jordan and Brooke Scherer recently took the stand in a criminal trial that got little attention but is destined to have an extraordinary impact.

After a little more than days of emotional testimony and just two hours of deliberation, the couple’s seven-year-long fight for closure ended when the jury found 39- year-old Gregory Andriotis guilty of recklessly causing the crash that seriously injured the couple, their daughter and killed the their 9-year-old son Logan.

The family was in the middle of traffic on I-75 in Hernando County in 2016 when Andriotis slammed into the back of the Scherer’s Mazda, nearly pancaking the SUV. Evidence showed Andriotis had been distracted at the time, using apps on his cell phone in moments leading up to the collision.

The case represents the first cell phone-related distracted driving case to go to trial in Florida. But when it happened, the deadly wreck became a symbol of the dangers of distracted driving and inspired a new state law banning texting while driving.

For the Scherers, the guilty verdict represents a new precedent in their ongoing battle to stop distracted driving.

“I always knew Logan was going to do something big for this world, but the hard part is knowing it’s got to be from the other side,” Brooke Scherer told us through tears shortly after the guilty verdict came down.

A “useless” law

In 2019, Florida lawmakers passed a bill making texting while driving a primary offense. But nearly four years after it became law, is it having much of an impact?

“This is what we call a clunky law,” explained Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. “I think it’s not worth the mammary glands on a boar hog. It’s useless.”

That’s because Florida’s ban on texting while driving might as well be called the law of exceptions The current statute makes all sorts of them.

The law provides exceptions for drivers who are stopped while they’re texting and for drivers who are using navigation apps. In addition, if a driver is suspected of texting and driving, Florida’s current law requires law enforcement inform the driver they don’t have to hand over their phone to an officer.

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“They created this law in this manner so Florida law enforcement officers would not write many violations,” said Judd. In his own department, Judd told us since 2019, Polk County deputies have issued 139 citations to drivers for texting while driving.

When asked if it’s a failure, Sheriff Judd responded, “Well, I don’t want to call it a failure, but you can.”

Statewide data shows texting and driving citations are rare

Between 2019 and 2021, Florida’s Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles (FHSMV) showed that distracted driving caused at least 110,000 crashes across the state, with nearly 1,000 fatal crashes.

When Florida’s ban on texting while driving took effect in July 2019, it also required every law enforcement agency to report to the state how many texting while driving citations their agency issued.

Law enforcement agencies include the Florida Highway Patrol, every sheriff’s office, and police department in the state, including university police units.

But state reports we obtained from the FHSMV revealed between July 2019 (when the state’s new texting & driving law took effect) and 2021, Florida law enforcement agencies issued just over 8,500 citations for texting and driving.

In a state with some 15 million licensed drivers at the time, that’s equivalent to just about nine tickets per day statewide. The reports also showed several agencies, including some sheriff’s departments, didn’t issue a single ticket in a 12-month period.

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Florida’s texting and driving law is weak compared to other states

“That’s just ridiculous,” said Gwendolyn Reese in response to the statewide data we showed her. Reese’s niece, Levonn, was a senior at FSU in 2015 when she was killed instantly after being struck by a distracted driver who was also on her cell phone moments before the crash.

Reese helped lobby in Tallahassee for Florida’s current law but said she knew then it wasn’t strong enough.

“We said this is not what we wanted but it’s better than nothing,” explained Reese.

When it comes to texting and driving laws across the country, Florida is considered to have one of the weakest. Florida’s fines for texting and driving are also among the lowest, just $30 for a first offense.

In New Jersey, penalties for texting and driving start at $200.

“When the laws are what they are, why should we expect anything different,” asked Reese.

Hands-free regulation

One answer Reese supports is hands-free regulation, which bans drivers from using handheld devices anytime they’re behind the wheel. Twenty-five states have already adopted the law

Former GM executive Steven Kiefer actively helped pass hands-free legislation law in 11 states so far. By the end of the month, he expects his home state of Michigan to pass a hands-free law too.

“All the states that we've been successful with these laws, the crashes and deaths go down 10 to 20%. It's not a perfect solution, but it is a good start,” he told us recently.

Kiefer started the Kiefer Foundation after losing his own son, Mitchell, to a distracted driver also on a cell when he was rear-ended on his way back to college after a weekend at home.

“We're trying hard to change the world in his honor,” Kiefer told us.

Kiefer recently moved to Florida and is now in the early stages of getting the Sunshine State to go hands-free too. It won’t be easy. Privacy and freedom will likely be issues that stir debate in Florida.

“People are very protective of their privacy,” explained Keyna Cory, a Florida lobbyist and member of a no texting and driving coalition in Florida.

Cory plans to meet with legislative leadership this summer to gauge interest in hands-free legislation for the next session.

Logan Scherer would have turned 16 in the next few weeks. His parents, Brooke and Jordan, have since moved out of Florida, but they plan on using their case to continue pushing for stronger laws on distracted driving and tougher penalties for violators.

“Unless everything is covered, nothing is safe,” said Brooke.

“It’s hard to be in our position and not just be angry. There’s so much they could do if they dared to do it,” Jordan said.

If you would like Katie to examine the effect of a specific Florida Law, contact her here.