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‘Enforcement time’ is here for Florida’s texting and driving law

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“Enforcement time” has come for motorists caught texting and driving by Florida Highway Patrol troopers.

The arrival of 2020 brings a handful of changes stemming from the 2019 legislative session, including final pieces of enforcing a new law that cracks down on texting and driving. Starting Wednesday, the highway patrol will join other law-enforcement agencies in issuing tickets, instead of warnings, to motorists stopped for texting while driving.

“There’s going to always be education going on, however now it’s going to be enforcement time,” Lt. Derrick Rahming of the highway patrol said. “We never want anyone to learn the hard way, so we gave everyone six months to learn about this law. But, now come Jan. 1, it’s a primary offense and we are going to start issuing citations.”

The new year also will usher in other changes passed during the spring legislative session, including part of a tax package that required a reduction in a tax that businesses pay on commercial leases.

As with the tax package, the bulk of the texting-while-driving law went into place July 1.

Florida in recent years has banned texting while driving, but it had been enforced as a “secondary” offense --- meaning motorists could only be cited for texting if they were stopped for other reasons such as speeding. But the new law (HB 107) made it a “primary” offense, allowing police to pull over motorists for texting behind the wheel.

The law also bars motorists from talking on cell phones in school and work zones, unless the motorists use “hands-free” electronic devices.

“These are our most vulnerable people that are in these areas," Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Kim Montes said. You got crossing guards, you got teachers, you got students and then you’ve got our construction workers.”

Law-enforcement agencies such as the highway patrol phased in enforcement of the law, with troopers issuing warnings to motorists before planning to start writing citations in 2020.

Tickets issued for a first offense carry a $30 fine plus court costs, which could reach $108.16. The fine jumps to $60 --- $158.18 with court costs --- for a second violation within five years.

Because of concerns the law could lead to racial profiling, officers are required to record the race and ethnicity of every violator.

Highway patrol troopers have issued about 800 warnings, which Rahming said shouldn’t be considered low.

“I think it’s right around where it needs to be,” Rahming said. “Throughout the state, we’ve had 1,151 citations issued (by all law enforcement) since the law started in July.”

Rahming said people putting down their phones while driving will make the roads safer.

“When you are sitting inside of a patrol car, you are going to see a lot of things. One of the things you will see is someone distracted in their vehicle,” Rahming said. “The number one thing we want to do is make sure everyone has their mind on driving and they are doing everything they need to, to make sure they are focused on driving.”

Montes agreed, saying the changes are expected to make a significant difference on the road.

'We have other states that have total bans," Montes said. “We’ll have to wait and see what this bill does.”

Among other changes taking effect Wednesday:

--- As part of an $87 million tax relief package (HB 7123), a sales-tax rate on commercial leases will be trimmed from 5.7 percent to 5.5 percent. The reduction is expected produce a $30.8 million cut in state and local taxes in the remaining six months of the fiscal year. Over a full year, the savings are estimated at $64.5 million.

--- A new law (HB 831) requires health care practitioners to transmit prescriptions electronically, with certain exceptions.

--- A new law (HB 409), allows remote, online notarization of documents.

--- A new law (HB 427), establishes the Honor and Remember Flag, which will honor members of the military who have died in the line of duty. The law authorizes the flag to be flown at state buildings and by local governments on Veterans Day, Gold Star Mother’s Day or any day when a member of the military from Florida dies in the line of duty.