Florida is one of only six states that hasn't banned texting while driving, but some major local employers are stepping up efforts anyway to get their workers to break the dangerous habit.
They've launched campaigns, implemented tough new rules and, in the case of Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation, handed out magnets with a gripping message: "TXTRIP." The nation's largest auto retailer also now asks employees who buy cars from a company dealership with their employee discount to agree not to text while driving.
"It's something I don't do," said Adam Lopez, 31, who drives a 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid he bought from a Maroone dealership. He knows his boss, AutoNation chief executive Mike Jackson, has lobbied for a state law banning texting while driving. Proposed legislation either has not advanced or has been defeated by the Florida state Legislature.
Boca Raton-based office supply retailer Office Depot has had a policy against texting while driving since 2009. Employees are not supposed to "text, send or read emails while [their] vehicle is in motion," according to the policy.
That applies both to company-owned and personal cellphones where the employee might take a business call, said Kathy Schroeder, director of global risk management for Office Depot.
But local employers like AutoNation and Office Depot say they're concerned about more than the use of company-owned cars or equipment.
"We want to do this whether there is a law or not. Common sense should tell you that texting or reading email while driving is dangerous," Schroeder said.
Sandford Hodes, senior vice president of safety for Miami-based Ryder System, said the transportation company initially banned texting but allowed hands-free cellphone use by drivers of company vehicles. By 2010, the company decided that safety research called for a more stringent policy: no texting or talking on a cellphone while operating a company vehicle.
"If your cellphone rings while driving, you let it ring," Hodes said. "Find a place to pull over off the highway and then return the call."
Drivers are under the "honor system" not to use their cellphones. Ryder has a twice-a-year campaign with posters and other employee communication to remind workers of the policy.
Ryder, which has 5,000 employees who drive company vehicles, also has installed cameras in about 100 vehicles to monitor for overall safety, Hodes said, and plans to expand that technology.
Other technology is being developed to deter people from texting while driving.
AutoNation and its local dealership Maroone have partnered with former football coach Howard Schnellenberger to promote a free phone app, FreeSafeText.com, that works with Android-technology smartphones. The app places a smartphone in quiet mode as soon as a vehicle reaches 10 miles an hour. The phone automatically responds to incoming messages with a text that says, "I received your message but I am driving now."
Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles says that 25,156 crashes were caused last year because of distracted driving, with 180 of those attributed to texting.
The crackdown by employers comes with overwhelming driver support, studies show, despite several failed attempts by the state to make it illegal.
According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 87 percent of drivers support some sort of law against texting, typing or emailing from behind the wheel. The group, which is aiming to have texting-while-driving bans in all 50 states next year, also reports that drivers using a cellphone have four times the risk of crashing than those who do not.
In Florida, Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, proposed a bill this past year that would have made it a crime for anyone under 18 to even use a cellphone while driving. But it didn't make it out of committee.
During the next legislative session, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, plans to introduce for at least the fourth time a bill that would make texting while driving a secondary offense and a nonmoving violation punishable by a $30 fine. Her previous bills have passed twice in the Senate but have been derailed in the House.
Detert says she hopes the next session will bring new leadership and more support. Past critics have said the rule infringes on drivers' personal freedoms, but the Venice legislator disagrees.
"I don't think it's too much government," she said. "I don't think we're telling people what to do. It's a safety issue."
Karen Morgan, a public-policy manager for AAA, says the trend of employers adopting anti-texting rules shows how grave the situation has become.
"You're taking your hands off the wheel. Your mind is distracted from what's going on around you," she said. "You're just creating a dangerous situation for yourself and everyone else that's a roadway user."
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