Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
With its growing population and traffic congestion, Florida is dealing with a critical problem: securing the safety of its roads and highways. Yes, the state has been spending a sizeable amount in road improvement projects; a simple drive up I-75 is all that is needed to see the evidence of that.
But better roads and improved surface technology is only the tip of the asphalt. Equally as important to ensuring road safety are the men and women responsible for monitoring our roadways and enforcing our traffic laws.
Between 2010 and 2017 the number of highway patrol officers (troopers) plummeted by 993, nearly half of the number of the 1,974 troopers the state allots to the Florida Highway Patrol. These workforce challenges have mirrored the plummeting number of traffic citations generated during the same time period. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of speeding tickets generated by the Florida Highway Patrol dropped from 317,000 to 258,000, or a drop of 19%. At the same time, the number of licensed drivers has increased from 15,374,230 to 16,568,874, with a commensurate increase in the number of registered vehicles at 16,682,411 in 2016 compared to 14,795,836 in 2011. More tragically, between 2011 and 2016, the number of vehicular deaths has similarly increased from 2,403 deaths in 2011 to 3,176 deaths in 2016, a 32% increase.
Unquestionably, the causes of these trends are multiple. For one, Florida continues to grapple with one of the more robust growth rates in the country, a trend that has taken its population to 20.6 million inhabitants without any signs of slowing down. Moreover, Florida has 122,736 miles of road with 14,298 of those miles belonging to state and federal agencies. More roads with more cars and more drivers generally amount to more accidents, with drug and alcohol use, and distractions such as texting while driving, playing integral roles in influencing these statistics. Additionally, the shared jurisdictional responsibilities between state and municipality law enforcement agencies have led to confusion, frustration, and redundancy in costs.
So, although factors such as congestion and carelessness certainly drive the number of vehicular fatalities up in any given year, so do fewer numbers of troopers.
And one of the big causes of attrition amongs troopers is pay.
Perhaps the most straightforward concept for improving the FHP's funding situation is simply to increase the amount of money the legislature allocates to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FDHSMV) for the FHP. However, with the legislature’s competing funding priorities, it has been difficult to adequately fund highway enforcement
Another solution would be to simply do away with the FHP and allow the monitoring of Florida's highways to be undertaken by Florida's sheriffs. The FHP workforce could then be transferred to the various sheriffs’ departments to handle the extra load along with some extra state funding.
However, a pilot program of this sort died in the State House of Representatives in 2017, and it does not appear there is any more appetite for such a program in 2019. Another possibility is transferring the FHP out of the auspices of the FDHSMV and placing under the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). Such a move, in theory, could save millions in administrative costs while streamlining law enforcement responsibilities within the state. But FDLE is not eager to absorb the FHP and its associated responsibilities.
Whichever alternative is chosen, it is clear that adequately patrolling Florida's highways will continue to be a challenge that if left unresolved will cost Floridians' lives.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He is the author of The Federalist Pages and serves in the Florida House of Representatives. He can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.com to arrange a lecture or book signing.