Could 2019 be the year Florida passes tougher distracted driving laws?

Elected officials have bills in the works

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – For years, News 6 has been Driving Change by shining a light on Florida's toothless texting and driving laws and pushing for more commonsense legislation to make our roads safer. 

As of February 2019, Florida is one of only four states that does not allow officers to pull someone over who’s looking at the phone instead of paying attention to the road. It’s called secondary enforcement and it’s a dangerous practice that does little to ensure safety and curtail distracted driving.

Distracted driving hit home, for me, a few years ago when a driver who was texting while behind the wheel destroyed my car and, in the process, sent me to the hospital. Besides a totaled car, I ended up with a concussion and 10 staples in the back of my head and I missed weeks of work. 

Year in and year out, our leaders in Tallahassee have made excuses, inevitably killing tougher texting and driving and distracted driving bills silently in committee. Committee chairs are supposed to work for the people, but time and time again, they’ve instead elected to put personal opinions ahead of the democratic process and the will of the voters.

“Just allow for the bill to be heard in committee,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando).

Smith, a vocal advocate for tougher enforcement, is also an open critic of the committee chair process. 

“Let the will of the Florida House and the Florida Senate, which was elected by Florida voters, let us have our say,” he said.

This year, a brand new set of leaders has taken over the state Capitol. Florida has a new governor, Ron DeSantis; a new Senate president,Bill Gavano; and a new speaker of the House, José Oliva. 

“I'm hoping that we get this done this year,” said state Rep. Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa).

In 2018, Toledo, along with state Rep. Emily Slosberg (D-Boca Raton), sponsored HB 33, a bill that, if it had become law, would have moved texting and driving up to a primary offense.

That was 2018. The House bill had little opposition, but the Senate version died in committee.

This is 2019 and the gloves are off.

“Even though we passed it through the House with 112 votes to 3, we felt that this would be a much better bill,” Toledo said of her new proposal. “It would just provide more clarity: Don't use your phone. It's very distracting.”

The need for clarity has moved Toledo, Slosberg and state Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) to all file bills this session that could be considered a full court press. The focus has shifted from texting and driving to all distractions in the car. And to start it off: drivers won’t get to hold their phones at all.

“It takes one second with your eyes off the phone to get in a car accident,” Toledo said. “This bill will be cleaner. You cannot use your phone at all but you can use it hands-free.”

Toledo’s bill, HB 107, now has Slosberg as a co-sponsor after Slosberg withdrew her bill earlier this year.

In a nutshell, the measure states a driver won’t be able to hold a device in his or her hand. Calls have to be made through a built-in system in the car, a Bluetooth headset or on speakerphone.

Toledo clarified that, under the proposal, the driver gets “one touch” to pick up a call and another to end it. Simpson’s SB 76 is the Senate bill to make Florida the 18th hands-free state. 

When I asked Oliva about the guarantee of passing a tougher law this year, he said, “No one person can guarantee anything. What I can tell you is I know why these bills had difficulty in the past. They were so linear. They were so focused on one activity on a device that is capable of hundreds of activities.”

The new speaker wants the House bill to focus on all distractions, not just cellphones. But in classic Tallahassee fashion, that message hasn’t seem to have trickled down to state representatives or committee chairs. 

“Well, I think we need to make some modifications … maybe going back to the prior bill is a good start,” state Rep. Brad Drake (R- Eucheanna) said in the halls of the Capitol. Drake chairs the Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee, the first stop for HB 107.

Drake, in fact, hadn’t brought up the bill for discussion in weeks because he preferred last year’s version that just focused on texting and driving instead of hands-free.

When I told Drake that I had just talked to the House speaker, who said he wanted to broaden the Toledo-Slosberg proposal into a distracted driving bill, Drake quickly thought it over and had this to said,

“Whatever we can do to make it appealing to the membership to be able to vote to send something out of committee that says, 'Look, we're putting public safety first,' so whatever it takes to get there I'm willing to work to do it.”

And Drake is a man of his word. Before I left Tallahassee that same day, he had put the bill on the agenda for debate. Toledo said she would also look into modifying the bill to fall more in line with the idea put forth by Oliva.

So, for now, at least on the House side, politicians are off to a healthy start to pass some very meaningful legislation. Citizens of Florida, they’re working to get results.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning anchor Matt Austin joined the News 6 team in June 2011 and has been the evening news co-anchor since December 2013.