Driving Change: DeSantis supports making texting and driving primary offense

Governor tells News 6 he needs to read HB 107 before he elects to sign it

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves to the gallery as he makes his state of the state speech on the first day of legislative session Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

COCOA, Fla. – Supporters of stronger texting and driving laws are eagerly awaiting to see if Gov. Ron DeSantis will sign the bill passed this week in the House and the Senate when it hits his desk.

For now, the wait will continue.

At a press conference Wednesday in Brevard County, DeSantis gave a thumbs up to what the bill is trying to accomplish -- giving law enforcement officers the ability to stop drivers for texting and driving-- but stopped short as to say whether he was fully committed to signing it into law.

“I’m very favorably disposed to saying no texting, making it a primary offense,” DeSantis told News 6 reporter Jerry Askin. “I think that it makes our roads more dangerous and it will cause more people … the more people who text and drive the more fatalities we’re going to have. So I’m supportive of making a primary offense.”

When asked whether DeSantis planned to sign the bill, the governor had this to say: “I just haven’t read it. So I don’t want to tell you," adding, “I’m somebody who wants to have in Florida no texting and driving. That’s my policy.”   

Florida is one of four states that treats texting and driving as a secondary offense. For a police officer to give a driver a ticket for texting, the officer has to witness the driver committing another primary offense. HB 107 is the Florida Legislature’s efforts to bring Florida in line with 44 other states by making texting and driving a primary offense. Additionally, the bill was amended by the state Senate adding hands-free restrictions in which a driver would not be able to hold a mobile phone at all.  

The compromise between the House and the Senate sets up a two-tier enforcement system for the state. Here are some of the details:

•    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, for example 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 which was very real concern, as this was the case when the state’s mandatory seat belt law first went into affect. Along with the ethnicity of the motorist, the officer’s ethnicity will be also be recorded.

•    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, including schoolchildren and road construction workers. The Senate wanted the state to adopt hands-free everywhere; the House wouldn’t go for it. Hands free in 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 under 21. Tennessee has a similar law to HB 107 regarding hands-free in school zones with flashing lights.

Under provisions of HB 107, enforcement would start on Oct. 1, 2019 with a three-month grace period ending Dec. 31. Law enforcement officers would be able to start ticketing motorists Jan. 1, 2020.

Once the bill is formerly presented to the governor, DeSantis will have seven days to either sign it, or veto it. If he takes no action, the bill automatically becomes a law after the seven-day period.

About the Author:

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