Some lawmakers and activists are shining a light on the dangers of driving while impaired. From texting to marijuana and other drugs, it’s not only about driving drunk anymore.
According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, about 2,400 people died on Florida’s roadways in 2013. And a group of lawmakers and activists wants to change that. Representative Larry Ahern of Seminole says it’s often overlooked, but U-S roads are dangerous. He recalls a sign posted outside the Air Force base where he was stationed.
“And it said you are now entering one of the most dangerous places in the world… the American highway,” he said.
According to two Florida lawmakers, one of the threats to road safety is texting while driving. Representative Keith Perry of Gainesville and Senator Thad Altman of Cape Canaveral are pushing legislation that would make texting while driving a primary offence. Currently, drivers can be punished for texting only after being pulled over for another violation. According to AAA, using a cell phone while driving quadruples the risk of crashing. Altman says it’s just not worth the risk.
“Can anyone? Can anyone legitimately defend the right to text while you’re operating a vehicle on our highways?” he said.
But for the “Don’t Let Florida Go To Pot Coalition”, drugs are the real problem, namely marijuana. The Coalition launched a social media campaign this week around the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana. The group says states where the drug is legalized are seeing an increase in drugged driving incidents. And they’re worried that if Florida legalizes the drug, the problem will get worse. But Criminal Defense Attorney Matt Willard says that doesn’t necessarily hold up.
“I think that’s a pretty slippery slope argument. The reality is the people who are smoking are already smoking and driving. I don’t think there’s gonna be some sort of gold rush to drive under the influence of marijuana,” he said.
In fact there are a lot of complications in trying to determine the role pot plays on the road. Testing for pot in someone’s system isn’t as easy as testing for alcohol. There is no breathalyzer for pot. According to the National Institutes of Health, marijuana’s physical effects vary from person to person. Levels of THC, the active ingredient in pot, depend on how the drug is ingested, genetic predisposition and other factors. Unlike alcohol, THC remains in the body days and weeks after use. Matt Willard says even if someone tests positive for THC, the case isn’t closed.
“So. What does that prove? Well it proves that he’s smoked or ingested cannabis. When is the question. Because marijuana stays in your system 20-27 days, depending on the frequency. So even though it’s in your system, it doesn’t necessarily prove you’re impaired,” he said.
Whether it’s driving under the influence of drugs, alcohol or texting, legislation isn’t the only way to shape behavior. Many point to MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving as an instigating force in shifting public awareness around drunk driving. While Senator Maria Sachs of Delray Beach supports the texting while driving bill, she says it’s time for a shift in driving culture.
“If you go to any other state and you know that you can’t talk on the phone or text, people don’t. And we have to create that same culture of safety here in the state of Florida,” she said.
Dr. Paul Conway, a psychologist at Florida State University points to the power of moral communities in forming behavior. By developing common rules around moral issues, culture can establish a clear right and wrong. Conway says laws aren’t the only ways to affect change.
“So I’m skeptical that legal means, like they can be part of the solution but they are not by themselves terribly effective. I think a lot more of it has to do with changing social ideas,” he said.
A constitutional amendment to legalize pot failed last year in Florida, but the issue isn’t going away yet. With laws and social acceptance shifting, Floridians will have to grapple with new ways to keep our roads safe.