Bill to let cops pull over Fla. drivers for texting clears first stop

After years of stalled legislation, a bill to let police pull over Florida drivers for texting passed its first state legislative committee of the 2018 session Tuesday.

The Palm Beach Post reported in June that crash reports listing distracted driving rose 10 percent in Florida in 2016, according to records the newspaper requested. Injuries associated with texting rose 45 percent in Palm Beach County.

But state legislators last spring declined to strengthen what advocates call some of the lightest penalties in the nation for drivers texting on cell phones.

“It drives me crazy the law is so weak,” said Steve Augello, whose daughter was killed in the Tampa area in a crash he believes was caused by another driver’s texting.

On Tuesday, SB 90, sponsored by state Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, passed the Senate communications, energy and public utilities committee 7-1.

“All too often we hear of the tragic stories of families that have been affected by someone who was texting behind the wheel,” Perry said. “I’m proud to sponsor this vital piece of legislation that will make texting and driving a primary offense in the State of Florida and join the many other states who have answered the call for safer roadways.”

Florida is one of five states that do not make texting while driving a primary offense. That means police have to stop a motorist for another reason, such as speeding, to write a citation. A fine is $30, though Florida Highway Patrol officials say in Palm Beach County local add-on fees make it $116.

“This is an important step for saving lives on Florida roads,” said Logan McFaddin, regional manager for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, representing nearly 1,000 members. “We need to change driver behavior, and we believe that toughening the distracted driving laws will save lives by encouraging people to think twice about picking up the phone while driving.”

Safety is the top priority, she said, “but the increase in accidents also could be impacting consumers’ insurance costs. The recent spike in the number of auto accidents resulting from distracted driving comes at a time when repair, labor, medical and other costs associated with accidents are also rising.”

It’s still early in the process, and skeptical legislators in past years have questioned whether there’s proof that texting-while-driving bans in other states have reduced accident rates.

“My main concern here is not giving people false hope that this is going to solve the problem,” said state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “If we really want to do something to solve the problem, we should just not have people be able to use their phones while driving.”

But passing a committee represents a more promising start than some bills have enjoyed in the past.

“Our number of distracted driving injuries and deaths are rising and our laws are not getting any better,” Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton and a sponsor of House legislation, said in June. Last session, she noted, “none of my bills actually received a hearing.”

 

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