JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott signed a statewide ban on texting while driving into law Tuesday, making Florida the 40th state to enact a texting-while-driving ban for all drivers.
The law makes it a secondary offense to read or send a text, email or instant message on a smartphone while driving. That means police have to first stop drivers for another offense, like an illegal turn. Florida's seat belt law also began as a secondary offense but is now a primary offense.
Driver's education instructor Michael Blain says the law won't have the same effect as a primary violation would.
"I think it would have been much better if it was a primary offense, allowing police officers to actually actively look for texting while driving," Blain said.
Even though it's new here, four states have similar laws. One of them, Virginia, is changing its texting and driving from a secondary to a primary offense in July.
Scott signed the bill at a Miami high school, noting that the 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are known as the deadliest days on the road for teenagers. However, the law doesn't go into effect until October.
"This is going to save lives. This is going to make sure our teenagers are safe while driving, that they're not distracted while driving," he said.
"There are 11 teenagers that die every day in United States from texting while driving," added Rep. Doug Holder. "Twenty-five percent of all accidents are now attributed to texting while driving."
It took five tries before Florida lawmakers finally passed the texting ban. Previous efforts stalled in the face of House Republican opposition, with conservative members worried about government intrusion into people's lives.
The House added a provision allowing police to use drivers' mobile phone records against them only when texting causes a crash resulting in death or personal injury. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has said that could help to defend the law against privacy concerns.
Drivers who text take their eyes off the road for almost five seconds, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry. At 55 mph, a driver can cross the equivalent of a football field while not looking.
There were 256,443 reported crashes in Florida in 2012. In 4,841 of those crashes, a driver had been texting or otherwise using an "electronic communication device" while driving, according to a preliminary report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
A University of Wisconsin study shows in the months following a texting and driving ban, the number of accidents go down. But after a few months, the study shows drivers go back to old habits.
Student Jackie Garcia said she tries to put her phone in the glove compartment when she's driving.
"It's just so temping because you know (your phone) is there and you want to reach for it," said the 17-year-old, who was among nearly two dozen students who stood next to Scott wearing "No Text On Board" T-shirts as he signed the bill.
Critics said the law should have made texting while driving a primary offense and complained the law will also be difficult to enforce.
"It's a watered down bill, but something is better than nothing," said Democratic Rep. Irv Slosberg, whose teen daughter died in an accident with a distracted driver.
When asked if he thought texting while driving should be a primary offense, Scott said "it's the right way to start."
The ban covers tablet computers as well as mobile phones, but excludes using a talk-to-text feature. It also allows texting while stopped at a red light.
The bill allows the use of phone records in defense against a ticket, but some phone companies' records don't differentiate between manual texting and talk-to-text messaging. If a driver is caught texting, police will have a hard time proving it after a recent Supreme Court ruling earlier this month that requires a search warrant to go through a person's phone.
A first violation is a $30 fine plus court costs. A second or subsequent violation within five years adds three points to the driver's license and carries a $60 fine.
AT&T, the AARP, AAA, trial lawyers, businesses and state law enforcement groups have all spoken in support of the ban.
But some teenagers say the bill won't do much good for the people who are most hurt by distracted driving.
"It's the nature of a teenager to text and drive, especially if you have a lot of friends, you know, you just happen to text and drive," said teenager Erick Diaz. "I don't feel like it's going to change [anything]. People still are going to do their thing, they're going to text and drive to a degree."
But others like Clara Land think the bill is a reminder that everyone is at risk.
"I think it's going in the right direction for those of us that don't really stop and think it can't really happen to me," Land said.
"Nothing is so important that it is worth risking your life by sending a text message while behind the wheel of a vehicle," said Julie Jones, executive director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "This legislation will help send the message to all drivers that they need to keep their eyes on the road, not on their cellphone."
Teen victim happy law finally in place; police have challenge ahead
Alan Conerly recently graduated high school and will be heading to college in the fall, but two years ago he was not so sure about his future. He was hit by a distractive driver who was either on the phone or texting. Since then he's been recovering and has been on a campaign to make texting and driving illegal.
"I would not like to see anyone else going though what I am going though," Conerly said. "It hurts me to see myself. It would hurt me to see me let this go by and not help anyone else."
He's been involved with several groups, including the SELF Movement, which is promoting the hazards of texting and driving to high schoolers. Conerly was glad to hear the governor signed the texting ban into law.
"It should have been done the first year after texting came out," he said.
For police, it's a different story. Lt. Ron Hodges, of the Clay County Sheriff's Office, said the new law needs more teeth. He said police can't seize phone records unless it's a fatal crash or resulting in serious injuries. And there are many loopholes for people to get out of being fined. For example, if they are stopped at a light or in traffic that is stalled, texting is allowed.
"They are still distracted," Hodges said. "Let's say we have a situation where they are at the light and someone is coming up behind them. If they are not paying attention, that person may not stop and rear end them."
The law is a secondary offense. Drivers have to be committing another infraction before they are pulled over. And since it involves a cellphone, people would have another excuse.
"If someone is texting or believed to be texting, they can say, 'I was actually making a phone call,'" Hodges said. "So how are we to say were they texting or just making a phone call?"
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