Advocates, law enforcement, and family members who lost loved ones to cell phone-related distracted driving crashes gathered at an Orlando hotel on Wednesday to announce the creation of a new statewide coalition aimed at making Florida a hands-free state.
The “Just Drive Hands-free Coalition will now begin formally pushing for statewide “hands-free” legislation that would make it illegal to hold a mobile phone while driving in Florida.
Jennifer Smith, CEO of stopdistractions.org, believes it’s time to stigmatize cell phone use behind the wheel, similar to drunk driving. Her mother was killed by a distracted driver on a cell phone when her mother was struck.
“We don’t just simply text or talk on the phone anymore; we video call, live stream, pay bills, shop, you name it, all while we’re driving. It is imperative to reverse this trend, and we need all hands on deck to change this behavior,” she told reporters at a press conference during a statewide conference to reduce crashes among teens.
If successful, a hands-free Florida law would mark a significant shift from the state’s current ‘no texting and driving’ law. While the law was beefed up in 2019 to make texting while driving a primary offense, our recent Impact Check investigation discovered the law includes a laundry list of exceptions making it difficult for police actually to enforce. As a result, our investigation found few citations have been issued since the new law took effect.
Last week, a 40-year-old Florida father of two was sentenced to 30 years in prison for causing a deadly crash that killed 9-year-old Logan Scherer in 2016. An investigation found Gregory Andriotis was using his cell phone to download apps and spreadsheets right before he slammed into the Scherer’s SUV. At the same time, the family was stuck in traffic on I-75 near Brooksville. The conviction is considered the first cell phone-related distracted driving case to go to trial, resulting in a conviction and prison sentence.
To date, 27 states have passed hands-free legislation. Alabama and Michigan are among the most recent states to get hands-fee bills signed into law.
Along with Jennifer Smith, Steven Kiefer has played a significant role in getting these laws passed, including the recent hands-free law signed in his home state of Michigan. Kiefer’s son, Mitchell, was killed in 2016 by a distracted driver using Snapchat on her cell phone when she slammed into the back of his son’s car while he was driving back to Michigan State University from a weekend at home.
After his son’s death, Kiefer, a former GM executive, started the Kiefer Foundation to help bring awareness to the problem of distracted driving, encourage new technology to help reduce crashes and deaths from distracted driving and push states to adopt hands-free legislation. He believes Florida is fertile ground for a stronger law focused on cell phone use while driving.
“Yes, there will be arguments about other distractions, but the one that is clearly having the most significant impact is the use of the mobile phones. Again, it won’t be perfect, but at least it won’t have people holding it in front of their face or holding it to their ear, and we know it will reduce crashes,” he said.
Kiefer, who recently moved to Florida, said data shows states that have had this law on the books show an immediate reduction in the number of distracted driving crashes and deaths, with some states seeing up to a 20% decrease in crashes and fatalities.
In Florida, debates around toughening the current no texting and driving law have focused on concerns over freedom and privacy. Kiefer is familiar with those debates and prepared to make his case to Florida lawmakers based on his family’s tragedy.
“You looking at a phone and running into my child and killing my child; I didn’t violate your freedom; you violated my son’s personal freedom."
The coalition hopes to get a lawmaker from Florida’s GOP majority to sponsor a hands-free bill this next legislative session.