Driving change: You soon can be ticketed for texting and driving in Florida

News 6 anchor Matt Austin driving force behind new Florida law

SARASOTA, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Friday morning making texting and driving a primary offense in the state of Florida.

News 6 has been behind the Driving Change effort ever since anchor Matt Austin was injured in a crash.

Since 2013, lawmakers have sponsored 31 different pieces of legislation to strengthen Florida’s texting and driving law.

5 things to know about Florida's texting and driving bill

House Bill 33, introduced by Reps. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, was the only one to successfully make it to a floor vote in 2018. The bill died, however, when its companion legislation, Senate Bill 90, failed to be heard in a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

On Sept. 9, 2016, News 6 anchor Matt Austin was waiting for a traffic light to turn green when a vehicle slammed into his car.  The driver was texting and driving and Austin was knocked unconscious by the impact of his daughter’s car seat slamming into the back of his head. 

[VIDEO BELOW: Trooper Steve explains new texting and driving law]

News 6 drives change.

Austin was treated for a concussion, had 10 staples put into his head and was off the air for an extended period of time. During Austin’s overnight stay in the hospital, the responding officer to the crash told him the driver was texting. But when Austin obtained the police report, there was no mention of the texting and no citation listed, as well.

Stop! In the name of life. News 6 anchor Matt Austin details crash

It was then that Austin learned that in Florida, texting and driving was a secondary offense and officers could not issue tickets unless they witnessed the driver texting and driving and witnessed the driver also breaking another law.

When Austin returned to work, he knew that something needed to be done.

“We had to ask our elected officials tough questions and demand answers. When they tried to sidetrack the answers, we drove back to Tallahassee until they answered and began working on solutions,” Austin said. “It was about holding them accountable until they could no longer back down.”

[VIDEO BELOW: News 6 anchor Justin Warmoth discusses new texting and driving bill]

The Weekly -- 4/28/19

“It was a long and hard fight,” said Austin. “But now after nearly three years, 100 stories, more than a dozen trips to Tallahassee, and thousands of miles driving around Florida to track down decision-makers, I'm relieved Florida politicians finally did the right thing.  They made safety a priority."    

The bill DeSantis signed into law not only elevates texting and driving to a primary offense, but also makes it illegal for drivers to hold a cellphone in either a school zone and a marked construction zone.

Though the new law allows police officers to proactively make the roads safer, the fines for texting and driving stay the same. A first offense will have a $30 fine, and a second offense will have a $60 fine. 

[VIDEO BELOW: Florida passes texting and driving bill]

The Florida House voted overwhelmingly Monday to send a bill to make texting and driving a primary traffic offense to the governor's desk, marking the furthest legislation of its kind has gone in the Sunshine State.

About the Author:

Donovan is WKMG-TV's executive producer of digital enterprise