That text can wait.
Florida legislators passed legislation last week — which awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature — enabling law enforcement to stop a vehicle if the driver is texting while driving.
Texting while driving was already illegal, but police could not pull over drivers unless they committed another violation.
Now, typing on a phone while behind the wheel of a moving car would become a primary offense.
Drivers will also be prohibited from using their cell phones while driving in active construction and school zones.
If the vehicle is stopped, or the driver isn’t using their cellphone in a “handheld manner,” the driver cannot be issued the citation.
“By strengthening the ban on texting while driving, Florida legislators are sending a strong message about this dangerous form of driver distraction,” said Mark Jenkins, a spokesperson for the American Automobile Association. “This is a major step forward in improving the safety on Florida roads.”
Between 2017 and 2018, DeSoto County issued less than a handul of so-called distracted driving tickets, where the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office issued six citations for texting and driving. Sarasota County has had 11 citations in this same time period, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Miami-Dade, as would be expected with its much larger population, last year recorded some 427 distracted driving citations.
Before this, texting while driving was a secondary offense, meaning deputies had to stop the vehicle for another traffic violation, and issue this citation as a secondary one.
If signed into law by DeSantis, starting Oct. 1, law enforcement can only issue written or verbal warnings regarding the offense. By Jan. 1, 2020, law enforcement can start issuing citations solely for texting and driving.
“Distracted driving continues to affect our community by people selfishly endangering the lives of other motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians,” said Lt. Christopher Williams, who is a supervisor for CCSO’s traffic unit. “It is imperative that drivers wait for a safe opportunity to handle cell phones, navigational systems, or anything else that may distract them from the responsibility of operating their vehicle.”
DeSantis has voiced his support for this type of bill in the past, saying “this stuff has got to be enforceable,” according to WINK News.
“If it’s a primary offense, then people are going to get pulled over,” DeSantis continued. “So, you’ve got to make sure that is going to happen.”
After the Legislature passed a bill allowing police to stop motorists for driving without a seat belt, studies showed that black drivers were targeted more than white drivers, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
To alleviate those concerns, the bill requires law enforcement to record the race and ethnicity of each ticketed driver. Beginning Feb. 2020, the department will report the data to the Governor and the Florida legislature.
One texting and driving offense is equal to three points against the driver’s license. If the driver is a first-time offender, instead of the penalty and fees, the driver can opt for a wireless communications device driving safety program approved by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the bill states.
All charges collected from violations will be given to the state’s Department of Revenue to deposit into the Emergency Medical Services Trust Fund of the Department of Health.
The law could encourage a shift to communicating via in-vehicle systems, AAA’s Jenkins said, but drivers should still be wary.
“Voice-to-text technology can also be distracting,” he said. “AAA urges drivers to focus on the road and avoid any form of texting while behind the wheel.”