If Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it into law, you can get stopped and fined for texting and driving

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If you text while driving, you could get pulled over and fined under a bill the Legislature has sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign into law. You can, however talk into your phone.

Florida has what has been considered one of weakest distracted driving measures in the country. The bill the Legislature passed doesn’t go as far as what some lawmakers wanted, which was a true “hands-free” law they have in other states, where drivers can’t hold their phones at all and have to use other technology to make calls.

Under the Legislature’s proposal, drivers can type on their phone for only specific reasons, like calling police or using GPS location services. In school or road construction zones, drivers can’t tap their phones at all.

Florida’s new proposal makes texting while driving a primary offense, meaning that a law enforcement officer can stop a motorist solely for texting while driving (currently it is a secondary offense, meaning that a law enforcement officer must first cite a driver for another violation). The penalty remains relatively weak, however. The first citation would carry a $30 fine plus court costs and fees, and a subsequent violation within five years carries a $60 fine.

Florida is one of just seven states that hasn’t considered texting while driving a primary offense. If Gov. DeSantis signs it, the law takes effect in July. Law enforcement officers will only give warnings if they see someone texting in a school or construction zone during a special introductory grace period between Oct. 1 and December 31.

The bill was co-sponsored by state Rep. Jackie Toledo, a Republican from Tampa, and Rep. Emily Slosberg, a Democrat from Boca Raton. Slosberg’s twin sister Dori was killed in a car accident involving a distracted driver in 1996 (that tragedy spurred their father, former Rep. Irv Slosberg, starting a nonprofit called Dori Saves Lives that focuses on traffic safety and curtailing distracted driving).

The Senate companion sponsored by Pasco County Republican Wilton Simpson was originally stronger –  it would have required drivers to use wireless “hands-free” devices, which is law in 17 other states.

The measures got bipartisan support in the Legislature, but what resonated in debate was the searing testimony from black House Democratic lawmakers who expressed heartfelt concerns about the potential for racial profiling in the law.

Ramon Alexander, a Democrat from Tallahassee, recounted a situation involving his brother in Jacksonville. He said after his father bought him  a Miata convertible, he was then promptly pulled over by local police seven times in thirteen days. He asked his colleagues to be more aware about what happens to people of color in America.

“I encourage you to come where we are, so you can feel it, and you can experience it, and you can be more sensitive to the issues at hand that impacts all of our communities.”

Rep. Patricia H. Williams, a Democrat from Broward County, told her fellow lawmakers:

“I heard a couple of you said, ‘but racial profiling is not what this bill is all about,’ but to us, this is what the bill is about. And when you say: ‘That does not happen?’ It happens to us every day, but when you want to turn your head and pretend it’s not happening, in the state of Florida these things exist. And it hurts.”

The bill addresses the concerns about racial profiling by including a provision that requires a law enforcement officer to record the race and ethnicity of anyone who is issued a texting while driving citation. The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles must annually report this information to the governor, Senate president and Speaker of the House.

“Guess what? We know after we compile that information, we know what we’re going to find,” said Palm Beach County Democrat Al Jacquet, a criminal defense attorney who represents parts of Delray Beach and Riviera Beach. He called the bill “bad for my community.”

“The intention is good. But the applications? We’re going to look back and say, boy we’re we wrong,” Jacquet added.

Because driving while texting laws have only been on the books for the past few years, there isn’t much data available on their racial profiling implications.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida published a report in 2016 examining the publicly available data reported by law enforcement agencies related to the state’s seat belt law. Like the bills dealing with driving while texting, that law requires each agency to annually report to state officials the race and ethnicity of every recipient of a ticket for violating seatbelt requirements.

The report found that in 2014, black motorists across Florida were stopped and ticketed for seatbelt violations at nearly twice the rate as white motorists overall.

State Rep. Richard Stark, a Democrat from Weston who has been pushing for making texting while driving a primary offense for several years, said that it’s a major victory to include race and ethnicity information in the legislation because there hasn’t been support in the House to include that provision in the past.

Stark said that it’s undeniable that people of color don’t live the same lives as whites like himself. Nevertheless, he’s pleased that most supported the House bill.

“Every one of them that I’ve spoken to, even in this day – I’m not talking about the ‘60s and ‘70s, when I grew up. They still get pulled over for stuff,” he said. “I don’t know if this is going to make it worse, but I understand where they’re coming from.”

Regarding the legislation itself, Stark says he knows it’s not as robust as what most other states do.

When asked his thoughts about the competing bills, Gov. DeSantis said last week that he didn’t know a lot of details about the different proposals, but said he supports language against texting while driving.

“This stuff has got to be enforceable,” he said. “If it’s a primary offense, people are going to get pulled over. You’ve got to make sure that’s going to happen. The more you go beyond texting, I have concerns about the administrability of it. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t support if that what ends up…but certainly the texting is a place where a lot of people would land positively.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had Julie Hauserman’s byline in error. This story is by Mitch Perry. 

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