Lawmakers look to toughen texting-while-driving penalties

Take a drive these days — whether on a state or county road or at higher speeds on the interstate — and you’re almost guaranteed to encounter a driver with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a smart phone.

 

Of course, distracted driving is not only common but it’s deadly and dangerous.

In 2016, 5,701 of 49,231 distracted driving crashes in the state were connected to the use of electronic devices, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Of those crashes involving electronic devices, texting was a factor in 192 wrecks.

The number of distracted driving crashes has increased steadily from 2013 to 2016, according to the preliminary data from the department.

In 2013, 39,141 wrecks were connected to distracted driving. Of those, 5,230 were connected to use of an electronic device, including 193 crashes attributed in part to texting.

Some Florida lawmakers, including State Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, want law enforcement officers to be able to pull people over for texting while driving.

State law only allows drivers to be cited for texting while driving if they’re pulled over for something else.

In addition to widening the door for texting-while-driving citations, House Bill 121 would also tweak other sections of the law including increasing penalties for texting while driving in a school zone. Stevenson, whose district includes part of St. Johns County, is co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill would also establish a $30 fine for the first offense, but that would be doubled if the offense happened in a school zone, according to Stevenson. For a second or subsequent offense within five years after a conviction, the fine would be $60 — that amount would also be doubled if the second offense happened in a school zone. Both would be non-criminal traffic infractions, as is currently the case.

“I think it would make our roads safer,” Stevenson said about the measure. “If texting was [a primary offense], I think you’d see a lot more compliance with people really using the discipline to put down the phone and drive the car.”

State Rep. Emily Slosberg, a Democrat from Boca Raton, is a co-sponsor of the house bill. She’s pushed for safer roads in part because her twin sister, Dori, died in a car wreck they were both in as teens, according to articles on wtsp.com and by the Sun Sentinel. Slosberg told the Sun Sentinel that figuring out how the law could be enforced was one of the main challenges — the Sun Sentinel article raised questions about how officers could see, or prove, if someone was really texting and not just holding their phone.

Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan, spokesperson for the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, agrees that enforcement of such a law would have its challenges.

“There are difficulties in observing exactly what function the motorist might be in from the law enforcement officers perspective especially given tinted windows and the like in Florida,” said Mulligan.

But, he said, the Sheriff’s Office is in favor of boosting safety.

“It appears that they’re moving toward a primary stop which could be beneficial given the circumstances that the law enforcement officer is observing, and certainly we want to enhance any safety that we can in school zones,” he said.

The language of the house bill, which in the Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee as of September, also says that law enforcement agencies would have to adopt a policy to prohibit racial profiling in the enforcement of the law. Committees are meeting now, but the Legislative Session begins in January.

The Sheriff’s Office already has a policy that prohibits profiling, Mulligan said.

The Committee on Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities in the Senate recently introduced an amendment to a Senate Bill that addresses the texting issue — the amendment would require officers to tell people who are pulled over for texting while driving that they can decline a search of their “wireless communication device.”

If enacted, a change in the law would be in effect July 1.

Though texting while driving gets a lot of press, Stevenson said distracted driving can include more than just texting — even hands-free devices can pose a danger. While modern cars are equipped with some of the best safety equipment, “horrendous” wrecks are still happening, she said.

Stevenson said part of the reason she supported House Bill 121 stems from a talk with elementary school students in Ponte Vedra Beach about texting while driving.

“The kids all started telling me they’ve been in a car accident and the person was texting … It’s a huge deal,” she said.

 

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