NEW PORT RICHEY — Texting while driving became a ticketable traffic offense Oct. 1, but local officials are still trying to gauge the impact of the new law.
Texting behind the wheel is a secondary offense, so tracking it can prove difficult. A law enforcement officer must pull over a driver for another traffic offense before citing a driver for composing messages on their smartphones.
The Pasco Clerk of the Court and Comptroller’s Office has recorded one citation, issued Oct. 24, said Holly Hawkes, an analyst for the clerk’s office.
“No other texting-while-driving citations have been filed with our office,” Hawkes said last week.
Sgt. Art Rowand of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said deputies have been discouraging drivers from texting even before the new law. Rowand supervises the traffic enforcement unit.
“We normally issue a citation for careless driving with an aggravating factor of texting,” Rowand said in an email. “This was before the texting statue was passed. While I don’t have an exact number of violations (like this), some have gone to a traffic hearing with positive results on our part.”
Rowand said he has personally observed the dangers of texting while driving.
“I have had several stops where the vehicle was exhibiting several clues for an impaired driver: weaving within the lane, slowing down for no apparent reason, (and) crossing the lane markers,” Rowand remarked.
“Then when you stop them there are no signs of impairment in the driver,” Rowand said. “In that case, we usually ask them if they were texting. The answer is normally yes.
“On one stop the driver got mad because I accused him of texting. He said he wasn’t texting, he was checking his call log.”
Other distractions from smartphones are causing traffic hazards, said Michael Brower, a State Farm spokesman for Florida.
A new State Farm survey shows the number of drivers “webbing while driving” has doubled in five years. The fifth annual survey on distracted driving attitudes and behaviors surveyed more than 1,000 drivers, Brower said in a news release.
“The majority of drivers today own smartphones, and they told us in the survey that in addition to talking and texting, they use their phone’s navigation system to get directions, check email, play music, and check social networks like Facebook and Twitter,” Brower wrote in an email.
Brower added: “And it’s not just young people. The survey breaks the drivers into age groups. As you would imagine, young drivers are most likely to have smartphones. But the numbers are increasing for all ages, and, the largest increase is among the baby boomers.”
Curiously, Brower said, more than 80 percent of drivers said they consider talking on a cellphone and texting while driving to be somewhat or very distracting. They also said they would support laws prohibiting people from texting, emailing or using a cellphone at all while driving.
“But still, at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or other electronic devices while on the road,” Brower said.