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Florida on precipice of enforceable texting and driving law

Central Florida officials react to HB 107 passing Senate, House

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla.Dear Florida,

A fundamental shift in the way you have driven for years is on the horizon. Your state government has gotten serious about keeping you safe. The message: Stop texting and driving. Put down the phone. Concentrate on the road. 

Sincerely,

Florida state representatives, state Senators (and hopefully soon), the governor.

Though road safety in Florida is no laughing matter, the state finds itself at the equivalent of emerging from the Dark Ages when it comes to how it reacts to motorists who text and drive.

“We are ecstatic,” Orange County Sheriff John Mina told News 6 on Tuesday. “Law enforcement has been pushing for making texting and driving a primary offense for several years now and are glad this is finally getting to the governor’s desk.”

Since 2013, Florida has had secondary enforcement of texting and driving. In essence: for a police officer to give a driver a ticket for texting, the officer would have to witness the driver committing another primary offense. 

With the passage of House Bill 107, approved last week with amendments by the Senate and this week by the House, texting and driving in the state is set to become a primary offense. All that’s needed to make driving in Florida safer for the state’s almost 8 million registered drivers is a signature by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“This stuff has got to be enforceable,” DeSantis said last week. “If it’s a primary offense, then people are going to get pulled over. So, you’ve got to make sure that is going to happen. The more you go beyond texting, I just have concerns about the administrability of it.”

DeSantis has seven days to sign or veto the bill. If he takes no action, the bill automatically becomes law. If he signs off on HB 107, Floridians and visitors to the Sunshine State will get two-tier enforcement: a stronger law now and a taste of what many other states believe is the best way to keep drivers safe.  

•    Tier 1: Texting while driving would become a primary offense. Police would be able to pull over a driver seen texting (or “inputting characters”) on a mobile device. Police cannot ask to see a motorist’s phone, but if a driver was not inputting characters (say, just hitting auto-dial to initiate a call), he or she can show the phone to the officer and make an argument that no texting had occurred. Law enforcement agencies will also have to keep track of the ethnicity of drivers given tickets in an effort to mitigate racial profiling (a very real concern as this was the case when the state’s mandatory seat belt law first came into play). Along with the ethnicity of the motorist, the officer’s ethnicity will be recorded, as well.  

•    Tier 2: Along with primary enforcement, holding a mobile device while driving will also become illegal if it is done in a school or work zone. This is commonly referred to as “hands-free” and is designed to protect some of the most vulnerable people when it comes to motor vehicle crashes (schoolchildren and road construction workers). The Senate wanted the state to adopt hands-free everywhere; the House wouldn’t go for it. School and construction zones was the compromise. According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, 22 states have hands-free laws for all drivers regardless of age. Three more states add restrictions for novices and/or those younger than 21. Tennessee has a similar law to HB 107 regarding hands-free in school zones with flashing lights.

"Everyone one of us probably who drives on the roadways at some point has driven down the road and saw someone who was driving poorly," Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said. "That really endangers many lives and it's not just the lives of the drivers themselves, but really the innocent people traveling on our roadways."

Demings, a former Orange County sheriff, has long been an advocate for a tougher texting and driving law.

“I’m a supporter that texting and driving should be a primary offense,” he added. “It’s going to require some heads up police work to be done.”

Last year, News 6 anchor Matt Austin sat down with then Sheriff Demings to discuss just how dangerous some parts of Central Florida had become for motorists.

Since state lawmakers passed a law mandating secondary enforcement of texting and driving in 2013, crashes and fatalities haven’t gone down, but instead have gone up -- a lot. Last summer, News 6 requested distracted driving crash statistics from the State of Florida from 2013 through 2017. After combing through more than 41,000 records the results were surprising.

Data for Central Florida counties shows that between 2013 and 2017, distracted driving crashes have increased by 33 percent. In 2013, Orange County had 5,390 distracted driving crashes. By 2016, that number had climbed to 6,100. In 2017, there were 6,972 distracted driving crashes in the county.

“This is an important step in our efforts to reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by distracted driving,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. “The City of Orlando is committed to making our community a safer place to walk, bike and drive and this legislation will go a long way towards helping us meet our Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2040.”

Florida, along with Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota, are the only states in the country that treat texting and driving as a secondary offense. Missouri only enforces texting and driving for drivers younger than 21; Montana has no texting and driving law. If HB 107 is signed by the governor, 45 states would then have primary enforcement.

Under provisions of HB 107, enforcement would start on Oct. 1, with a three-month grace period ending Dec. 31. Law enforcement officers would be able to start ticketing motorists Jan. 1, 2020.

“We think this is going to make our roads a lot safer -- one in four accidents are related to texting and driving,” Mina said. “We are serious about this -- we see the data, we see all the accidents that are caused by the cellphones, and we are going to be out there warning and ticketing people.”

“We have the law but let’s use it to impact and save lives.”


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