- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

Sept. 16

News Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida, on state’s texting law:

If you baked a cake to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Florida’s texting-while-driving law on Oct. 1, there probably would be room on it to place a candle for each motorist ticketed in Volusia and Flagler counties - 36.

That’s not a number to celebrate.

The low figures - 28 citations in Volusia, eight in Flagler - are not reflective of the law’s deterrence, as anyone traveling a local road can testify. There is ample evidence daily of people fiddling with their phones while behind the wheel, in traffic, and not always even stopped at a red light.

Few motorists take the law seriously because it rarely is enforced. That was by design.

Although 41 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, Florida is one of only four states within that group that make texting a secondary offense. That means law enforcement cannot pull over a driver only if he is observed operating his phone. Authorities first must witness the driver committing a different violation, such as speeding or not wearing a seat belt, before a citation for texting while driving can be issued.

Opponents of making texting a primary offense argued that it would constitute an invasion of privacy. That’s a pretty thin reed to grasp, as driving is a state-monitored and regulated activity, and driving on public roads is a privilege, not a right. Texting while driving is a public safety issue.

Indeed, it’s widely accepted that texting is more distracting for drivers than eating, adjusting the car stereo or talking to other passengers, and even more impairing than alcohol. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that texting while driving increases a motorist’s risk of a crash by 23 times. The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration said the behavior is six times more dangerous than driving under the influence. Some call it “driving while intexticated.”

Texting deserves to be made a primary offense, just as seat-belt usage has become. Florida made failure to wear a belt a secondary offense in 1986, and finally bumped it up to primary status in 2009. Lawmakers shouldn’t wait that long to address texting. After all, failure to use a seat-belt endangers the safety of only the wearer. A driver distracted by texting endangers everyone on the road.

The biggest gains can be made by convincing more people - especially the biggest offenders, those under the age of 30 - of the benefits of keeping their eyes on the road at all times. Ultimately, though, the problem may have a technological solution - vehicle telematics are being developed which prevent the driver’s phone from sending or receiving calls and text messages, except for emergency numbers.

There’s already a campaign by AT&T; to promote a simpler, voluntary way of avoiding texting. Called “It Can Wait” and aimed at young drivers, it encourages them to download an app that automatically sends a message to incoming texts, letting friends and family know the driver is behind the wheel and will reply when it’s safe.

Giving law enforcement more enforcement power can make a difference. According to a study in this month’s American Journal of Public Health, states that made the texting a primary offense and banned all drivers from texting saw a 3 percent reduction in traffic deaths. The Legislature should revisit and strengthen the texting law before it turns 2.




Sept. 16

Miami Herald on immigrants driver’s licenses:

The push to secure driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in Florida took a hiatus after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the measure last year. But the inconvenience - and the injustice - that the veto imposed did not.

The issue is back in the spotlight as advocates campaign to let the undocumented drive legally. And though they are trying to get some traction with both of the gubernatorial candidates, it’s not too early to also make the case - again - in advance of next year’s legislative session.

Last year, state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved - in fact, it was almost unanimous in the Republican-majority Legislature - a bill that would have allowed the teenage or adult children of undocumented immigrants to get a temporary driver’s license. These young people first had to be approved by the federal government for “deferred action” to get work permits under the Obama administration’s then-new policy. In 2012, President Obama, through executive order, delayed the deportation of a group known as the “Dreamers,” young people brought as children to the United States by parents who entered the country illegally. After the 9/11 attacks, Florida was among the first states to impose a requirement that immigration papers be presented in order to get a driver’s license.

But Gov. Scott vetoed the measure, a move the Editorial Board called “mean-spirited.” Mr. Scott said at the time that, “Given that deferred-action status does not confer substantive rights or lawful status upon an individual, Florida is best served by relying on current state law.”

It was a misguided notion, for what serves Florida best is giving people who want to work, get to school and otherwise do all the right things a chance to do so without being penalized for what their parents did.

While Congress has, for too long, refused to make the tough choices and make immigration reform a reality - and while President Obama, who promised to take one step forward on the issue, last week took two steps back until after the November elections - many states are stepping into the void. Some, such as Arizona, have tried to make it harder for law-abiding undocumented immigrants to exist. Others, have become “sanctuary” states, still others - 11 of them - have enacted laws that allow the undocumented to get driver’s licenses. Advocates want Florida to become the 12th. It’s a matter of common sense, compassion and safety.

The reality is, undocumented immigrants drive. No, they shouldn’t, but they do. They drive their kids to school, they drive to pick up groceries, they drive to get to their jobs. Right now, they are doing it illegally. Otherwise law-abiding immigrants who are contributing to society live in fear of traffic stops and being outed as undocumented, which can put them in the deportation pipeline, needlessly rupturing their families. In addition, if they could drive legally, they would have to pass safe-driving tests and have auto insurance, which helps lower the chance of accidents and to reduce costs for the broader community.

Those who rightly don’t drive, however, lose out on jobs, especially in a wide-ranging county such as Miami-Dade, which has uneven public transportation.

This issue should, indeed, come before the Legislature again. Charlie Crist has hinted at his approval; Gov. Scott could have another 180-degree moment on the campaign trail and reverse himself as he did with giving Dreamers in-state tuition. He was, at one time, dead-set against that, too.



Sept. 17

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on MacDill Air Force Base and the president:

President Obama is scheduled to be briefed this morning at U.S. Central Command on the latest developments in the war on terrorism.

Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa has been the focal point of that war since 9/11, and we hope the president, in addition to talking strategy, takes the time to consider how sustained support for the military operations at MacDill is crucial to the nation’s defense.

Taking a broader view is critical because Washington too often treats its military with casual disregard.

A painful example came last year when big spending cuts were made necessary by the budget impasse in Washington. Those abrupt cuts forced a reduction in MacDill’s training flights, the postponement of $6.6 million in capital improvements, training delays and maintenance complications. The stand-off also resulted in furloughs for the base’s civilian workers.

All this, of course, also heavily impacted local businesses. The base has a $5 billion economic impact in the Tampa Bay area, so Washington cannot cut the base budget without also hurting the local economy.

Congress, to be sure, was as much to blame for that fiasco as the president. (Whatever our differences on policy, we do give President Obama credit for supporting such worthy local projects as the I-4 connector and funding that allowed the demolition of the dilapidated Central Park Village.)

This isn’t to say that the military should be spared any spending cuts.

But it should be spared having to deal with the stress of never knowing whether Washington is going to adequately fund its mission - a mission that can change at any moment.

The Islamic State crisis illustrates how quickly the military must adapt to a new threat. And it is almost always ready for the challenge - as we have repeatedly seen at MacDill Air Force Base.

Consider how the base’s 6th Air Mobility Wing and 927th Air Refueling Wing, the reserve unit, played a little-noticed but essential role a few years ago when Allied nations were determined to stop Libya dictator Moammar Gadhafi from slaughtering civilians.

The active-duty and reserve Air Force personnel serving at MacDill were mobilized, and within days were flying refueling missions for the jets carrying out the bombing raids on Libya. They left their families at a moment’s notice.

That sort of efficiency does not occur by accident. It occurs because military men and women, and their families, are willing to put country before all.

Their commitment deserves a similar commitment from Washington.

We are all for cutting waste and improving efficiency, but a bare-bones military - or one subject to ever-uncertain spending requirements - will be incapable of responding effectively to the constantly evolving threats faced by our nation. Nor will it be able to attract and retain the dedicated men and women we need to defend her.



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