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Florida Legislature looks to strengthen texting and driving laws and penalties

Two bills in the Florida Legislature are looking to discourage phone use while driving by hightening penalties and making texting while driving a primary offense. JACKIE BENITEZ

It’s not unlikely to look over while driving, only to see the driver in the next lane staring down at their phone rather than the road.

It is an issue among all age groups, but college students are making up the majority of these offenses.

A study by the American Automobile Association in the beginning of this year found that 59.3 percent of drivers age 19-24 were twice as likely to have sent a text or email while driving. 

This is a statistic that the Florida Legislature is working to change. 

The Florida House of Representatives and Senate are each looking at two bills that would strengthen the current laws against texting while driving.

As the law stands, people can be cited for texting while driving if initially pulled over for another offense, such as speeding.

However, House Bill 69 and Senate Bill 144 would alter that. If both pass, the law would change to allow officers to pull people over solely for texting while driving.

“One of the things that has helped life expectancy across the country has been the primary enforcement of seat belts,” Senator Rene Garcia (R), who filed the Senate bill, said at a meeting of the Transportation committee on March 22. “I think that we see the number of accidents, especially as it relates to youth that have been happening as it relates to texting and driving has been going up and up each year.

“Unfortunately, the educational programs that we’ve put in place have not worked. And I think this will go a long way to ensure people understand that texting and driving is a serious offense. 

But Garcia knows proving a person was indeed texting while driving is not an easy task.

“I understand that it’s very difficult to prove in a court of law because you have to open up someone’s cell phone,” he said. “You have to get a court order to open up that phone.”

Garcia said he’s had police officers talk to him in support of the bill. Backing up his statement, Police Chief of Lake City, Argatha Gilmore, spoke at the meeting to express support from the Florida Police Chief Association.

“The current texting laws are almost impossible to enforce as it is,” she said. “The secretary of defense and the general public knows this. Therefore, we continue to see this kind of reckless driving behavior.”

Gilmore believes if this bill passes, it will help to eliminate these “deadly and dangerous” incidents.

According to Renna Reddick, public information officer for University Police, UP did not cite anybody during 2016 under the current law.

One of the concerns raised about the bill is how it can be enforced, and whether it pertains to just texting or expands to include the use of cell phones in general.

“That will be up to the police officer at that point, but it’s really texting. The bill is texting and driving,” Garcia said. “And there’s a whole bunch of things you can be doing on your phone. You can be looking down at it; you can be going on an app, and so forth. That in itself can be up for interpretation.”

The Transportation committee voted 5-0 to support the bill, which has now moved to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development, according to 

The bill’s counterpart in the House of Representatives has made it through one reading on the House floor.

The Legislature is also looking at a bill that would change the penalties for texting while driving in a school zone. 

According to the Department of Motorized Vehicles, under the current law there’s no points put on an offender’s driver’s license, two points are added to a primary offense such as speeding if it occurs in a school zone and six points are added if the texting resulted in a crash. This can include a $30 ticket.

If passed, the bill would double the amount of the traffic citation if somebody is found texting while in a posted active school zone or designated school crossing.

“We can note all the studies that we want to and I can bring in other studies that say it really doesn’t help,” Garcia said. “But we’ve all seen it time and time again when we’re on the road and we see people in front of us and we have to beep because they’re looking on their phone, looking on their apps, texting. And I think all of us are very frustrated.

“How many times have we seen somebody going between lanes because they’re looking at their phone? There’s also a lot of other instances. You can say, ‘Oh, changing the radio or the AC is distracting,’ but there’s nothing more distracting than staring at those phones.”