Texting while driving: Tougher enforcement advances in Florida House

On the opening day of Florida’s legislative session Tuesday, a bill to make texting while driving a primary offense unanimously cleared a state House committee where it died last year.

Texting behind the wheel has become a huge cultural problem where it can seem like “everybody does it,” but “as the state of Florida we must start sending the right message,” said HB 33 prime co-sponsor Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.

After years of gridlock, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee passed 14-0 a measure that this session has the announced support of House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Florida is one of four states that do not make texting while driving a primary offense.

That means police can not cite it unless they pulled a driver over for another offense such as speeding.

Similar legislation in the Senate has won early committee approval as well. It still has a long way to go in both chambers, but the effort is off to a much stronger start this session as more families lose loved ones on the road to distracted drivers, and troubling statistics have made the issue harder to dismiss.

Florida crash reports citing distracted driving rose 10 percent in Florida in 2016, and injuries associated specifically with texting rose 45 percent in Palm Beach County, The Palm Beach Post reported in June about in-depth data it requested.

“The fact that Florida is one of many states experiencing double-digit spikes in distracted driving-related crashes and is only one of four states that hasn’t already made texting while driving a primary enforcement law is mind-boggling,” said Logan McFaddin, the Florida-based regional manager for an insurer association, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.  Making it a primary offense, she argued, will “save lives.”

Under current law, an officer cannot pull over a driver solely for texting even if he or she witnesses the act, Slosberg said. Now police can take much more direct action, she said.

“Law enforcement can stop it when he sees it, immediately,” said Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs. “That’s what we’re doing here.”

No one among more than two dozen speakers at Tuesday’s hearing, including several people who lost family members, spoke in direct opposition to the bill. But even in support, several legislators voiced concerns, either that it does not go far enough or that it raises unintended problems.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, expressed qualms it could give police one more reason to pull over minorities. Too often “that doesn’t end well,” Newton said.

Slosberg said data on enforcing laws requiring seat belt use, for example, suggested citations were not disproportionately handed out based on race.

Even supporters acknowledge texting behind the wheel is often difficult to prove and it’s only one of several ways drivers can be distracted. Few drivers voluntarily admit texting. But sponsors argue it’s critical to send a much stronger message than the current law allows.

The bill strengthens the current ban on texting, emailing, and instant messaging while driving, by changing the current enforcement of the ban from secondary to primary.

The bill protects civil liberties by requiring a warrant to access a driver’s phone, sponsors say. It also requires a law enforcement officer who stops a motor vehicle for a violation of the ban to inform the driver of his or her right to decline a search of the phone.

At the same time, a phone search might not be required for a citation if the officer witnesses the offense, according to a law enforcement official speaking at the hearing.

Many features of current law would remain in place, including that the ban does not apply to stationary vehicles, first responders or people reporting emergencies, or the use of navigation systems, according to a House staff analysis.

A first violation remains a nonmoving violation that carries a $30 fine plus court costs, for a total fine of up to $108.

A second or subsequent violation committed within five years is a moving violation that carries a $60 fine plus court costs, for a total fine of up to $158, with three points added to the driver license record of the motor vehicle operator.

Any violation of the ban that causes a crash results in the addition of six points to the offender’s driver license record.