Florida roadway fatalities climb despite reaching record seat belt usage

Though more Floridians use seat belts than ever, traffic fatalities continue to rise, a disparity that some lawmakers attribute to motorists distracted by their phones.

More than 90 percent of Florida residents use seat belts—an all-time high, according to an analysis by the Preusser Research Group.

But despite the prevalence of safety belt usage, traffic fatalities have increased in Florida overall, according to Florida’s Integrated Report Exchange System, which showed a 32 percent increase in roadway deaths between 2013 and 2016.

While incomplete, the available data for this year shows Florida may have its first major dip in crash-related fatalities since 2011. The total number of crashes, however, is on course to be slightly less or equal to last year’s 395,834.

The reason, said Rep. Emily Slosberg (D-Delray Beach), is largely attributable to smart phone use behind the wheel.

“Every generation is addicted to their phones, and I think more deaths are caused by distracted driving than drinking and driving,” said Slosberg, who authored a bill that would enable police to more actively enforce distracted driving statutes.

In June, PRG released its annual “Safety Belt Use in Florida” report, which showed Florida’s safety belt usage rate as 90.2 percent, up from 89.6 percent in 2016.

“They finally got there,” said PRG President Mark Solomon over the phone. “Every year we’ve been measuring in Florida, for a long time, they’ve been trying to reach that 90 percent mark. And they finally did it.”

Data was collected through roadside observation at randomly scheduled periods during daylight hours from June 2 to 8, according to the report, which included samples from 165 sites across 15 counties.

Safety belt usage has risen since 2009, according to PRG, from 80.9 percent to its current rate. That trend tracks with a 2009 law that gave police the authority to pull vehicles over if a driver, front-seat passenger or passengers aged 17 or younger were not wearing safety belts.

The law was hard-won, according to its primary sponsor, current Broward County Commissioner Nan Rich, a former state senate minority leader. The 1986 nationwide safety belt law was previously enforceable in Florida only after motorists were pulled over on suspicion of a traffic violation.

“We’d tried for close to 20 years to pass legislation, but there was some strong opposition from a few senators,” she said. “It’s saved so many lives, and I think of all the years we could’ve been saving lives.”

Rich credited Irving Slosberg, a past state senator and representative, as being an early champion of elevating safety belt enforcement. His daughter, Emily, now holds his former House of Representatives seat.

In 1996, Slosberg’s 14-year-old daughter, Dori—Emily’s twin sister—was among five teenagers killed on Florida’s Turnpike, according to the Sun-Sentinel. None wore safety belts.

Slosberg ran for an incumbent Democrat’s House of Representatives seat in 2000 and won, but was unable to pass stricter safety belt legislation in the Republican-controlled chamber before reaching his term limit in 2006. The 70-year-old now serves as CEO of the Dori Slosberg Foundation, a roadway safety education and advocacy nonprofit.

The correlation between the bill’s ratification and an increase in safety belt use is undeniable, according to Solomon, who said he’d observed similar rates at a national level.

“It’s the same thing—the same patterns,” he said. “A lot of that increase has been aided when states adopt new laws that go from a secondary enforcement to a law to a primary enforcement law, just like Florida.”

Yet Florida ranks behind only Louisiana for distracted driving, according to the EverDrive Safe Driving Report, which gave Sunshine State motorists 37th place overall for driving skills.

Like safety belt usage prior to 2009, Florida law enforcement can only cite drivers for using their mobile devices if they’ve been pulled over for traffic violations. Only three other states—Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana— have similar restrictions according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

Bills to change this have been introduced every year, but none have reached the governor’s desk.

Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami), who is set to become the state House speaker in 2018, has said primary distracted driving enforcement risks violating motorists’ privacy and could cause unnecessary confrontations, particularly in areas where tension exists between law enforcement and citizens.

But according to Slosberg, evidence to support primary enforcement of distracted driving laws is available as part of SB 344 tracking data.

“The first full year [of primary seat belt enforcement] in Palm Beach County, there were over 40,000 seat belt tickets issued; fast forward to 2016, it was under 10,000 [tickets],” she said. “Changing [enforcement] from a secondary to a primary has had a huge impact.”

Safety belt use statistics, she said, can also debunk arguments of racial profiling.

“Overall, the percentages of seat-belt-related citations reflect the demographics of Palm Beach County and was congruous with all the traffic citations in the county,” she said.”