TREASURE COAST - On July 1, texting while driving became a primary offense in Florida.
Texting while driving was already illegal, but drivers could not be pulled over only for that. An officer could only charge the activity as a secondary offense when stopping a driver for something else.
Florida becomes the 44th state in which texting while driving can be charged in absence of any other offense.
“Throughout our state, we’ve seen far too many accidents where passengers are killed or severely injured as a result of distracted drivers,” said Governor Ron DeSantis. “This bill gives law enforcement the ability to better enforce distractions behind the wheel. We cannot prevent all accidents on our roadways, but it is our hope that by taking action to address distractions today, we might be able to prevent a tragedy tomorrow.”
The bill adds that a driver may not use a handheld wireless communications device for any purpose while in a designated sensitive area such as a school crossing, school zone, or work zone area while workers are present or operating equipment.
According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Florida had 52,129 “distracted driving crashes” in 2018, of which 3,068 resulted in incapacitating injuries, and 233 felonies.
On the Treasure Coast, St. Lucie County had the most crashes caused by distracted drivers, 1,003, with 19 incapacitating injuries.
Martin County had 313 distracted driving crashes in 2018, with 6 incapacitating injuries.
Indian River County had the least such crashes, 80 for the year, but also had the Treasure Coast’s only fatality blamed on distracted driving.
“Florida historically has had the highest bicycle rider and pedestrian fatality rates in the entire country,” said Hugh Aaron, president of Bike Walk Indian River County. “I believe that enactment of the Texting While Driving Bill will save lives.”
Texting while driving can now result in a ticket that will add three points to your driver’s license, plus fines and court fees. A first violation will result in a fine of $30 plus court fees up to $108. A second violation within five years is a $60 fine, plus court costs.
According to the Florida Police Benevolent Association, Florida’s law took over three years of lobbying, in part because of differences regarding whether the bill should just ban texting, or all distracted driving.
“The differences in opinion over implementing a “texting”, or “distracted while driving” ban simmered all session,” said FLPBA Executive Director Matt Puckett. “The compromise on the school and work zones for a full “distracted while driving” ban happened after both bills were heard on the respective floors of each chamber. The Senate amended the bill to put the language into HB 107 which sent the bill back to the House of Representatives for final approval.”
Officers cannot search a phone without consent or a warrant. Examining a phone’s text log at the scene of a stop to see when texts were sent would be considered a search.
The law also requires the collection of ethnic/racial background information regarding both the officer and the driver. According to the FLPBA, the gathering of racial information was included at the request of the Legislative Black Caucus to see if any racial biases or trends become apparent as the new law is enforced.
Talking on the phone using hands-free devices is still allowed. The new law also allows operation of the phone while the vehicle is stationary.
“We have a responsibility to all Floridians to limit distractions that cause tragedies on our roads,” said Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez. “This bill is about protecting our residents and preventing as many accidents as possible through smart enforcement.”
Most violations through the end of 2019 will be handled with a warning only, with citations beginning in January, 2020. The exception is school and work zone citations, which will begin in October 2019.