JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In nine months, more than 31,000 people died in the country in a motor vehicle accident. It hasn’t been that high since before every state had a click-it-or-ticket law as a primary offense. One group wants to make changes to state laws to help combat the spike in driver and passenger deaths.
Suzy Kennedy lost her son to a drunk driver.
“It’s literally all we can do to get through the day,” she said.
Ryan Kennedy, Bailey McKnight and their unborn child were killed by a drunk driver on U.S. 301 in 2018. The driver, Shawn Blitchington, was sentenced to 60 years in prison last July.
And while Misty McKnight, Bailey’s mom, said “he deserved what he was given,” it still does little to ease her family’s pain. Before the deadly crash, Blitchington had five prior DUI convictions.
Cathy Chase is the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and said an ignition interlock system, where a breathalyzer test is required for the car to operate, could have saved those lives.
“It would prohibit them from driving,” Chase said. “I mean, the car won’t start if someone is impaired.”
She said Florida should require that anyone with a DUI conviction have one, but it doesn’t. That’s just one of the gaps her organization found in its roadmap of state highway safety laws.
Action News Jax Investigator Emily Turner asked her how Florida stacks up. Florida is in the worst category, she says, the state gets “a red report card with only 6 of the 16 laws in place.”
The study looks at what laws need to be in place to keep drivers safe. In addition to an interlock system, Chase said Florida should also have these nine laws.
- Primary Enforcement Seatbelt Law (Rear)
- All-Rider Motorcycle Helmet Law
- Rear Facing Through Age 2 Law
- Booster Seat Law
- GDL (Graduated Driver Licensing Systems) – Minimum Age 16 for Learner’s Permit
- GDL – Stronger Nighttime Restriction Provision
- GDL – Passenger Restriction Provision
- GDL – Age 18 for Unrestricted License
- Ignition Interlock Law for All Offenders
- GDL Cell Phone Restriction
If the age for a learners permit was raised, for example, Chase said it could have prevented the 15-year-old driver at fault for the Ace Hardware crash from being behind the wheel at all. Five people were injured and the store deemed a total structural loss. While no one died in that accident, more than 3,000 Floridians weren’t so lucky last year.
Road safety is more important than ever right now, Chase said. Nationally, the number of people who died in an automobile accident jumped 12% this year, but Florida saw an even bigger spike of 17.5%.
“Unfortunately since the onset of the pandemic, our roadways have turned into race tracks and the number of fatalities have really been skyrocketing, due at least in part to speeding, impaired driving and fewer people buckling up,” Chase said.
The trend has also spurred the U.S. Secretary of Transportation into action, creating a National Roadway Safety Strategy with the goal of zero roadway deaths.
In his announcement of the program, Pete Buttigieg said, “we have a crisis that is urgent unacceptable and preventable.”
But Chase said there’s no need to wait on the feds to make changes the state can tackle now. Except we checked, and not one of her group’s ten recommendations came up this legislative session.
“The cards are somewhat stacked against us in terms of advocating for laws,” Chase said, “but let me tell you every one of the laws we push for is a proven life ver.”
Chase says Florida has a shorter legislative session than many states, making it more difficult to change the law. Also, while groups like hers can bring forward legislation, it’s up to law makers. And unless someone is directly impacted by one of the gaps in law, it’s difficult to find someone who will champion the cause in the capitol.
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