Texting while driving could become primary offense in Florida

Teen drivers especially at risk

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A bill being considered in the legislature could make texting and driving a primary offense in Florida. That means drivers can be ticketed and fined if the bill is approved during the next legislative session. 

The Florida Department of Transportation put teens to the test behind the wheel in a simulation that includes a distracted driving scenario. 

Every teen at a recent safe driving program at Atlantic Coast High School failed the simulation.

"That was way harder than I thought, and there's so much to watch that I never thought about it," Atlantic Coast High School senior Calvin Martin said.

They crashed doing something they're all too familiar with.

"I looked at it once and veered way off the road and I was like 'Nope, I'm putting my phone in the backseat,'" Atlantic Coast High School senior Alex Caldwell said.

Crashes are the number one cause of teen deaths in the U.S.  According to AAA, more than half of those crashes involve distracted driving, like using cellphones and interacting with a passenger in the car. FDOT is visiting local schools, to bring attention to the issue. Even lawmakers are pushing for tougher texting-while-driving laws. 

A new bill being debated in a state Senate committee would make texting while driving a primary offense in Florida. Right now, it’s a secondary offense. The tougher bill would double penalties in a school zone.

"I don't know if it will keep teens from texting. I think it might keep them from texting as much," Caldwell said. 

Forty-one states already have laws making texting while driving a primary offense. Some have even outlawed talking on the phone while driving. 

"I'll definitely think twice or three times before I check my phone now," Martin said.

Law or not, some students say this simulation gives them new perspective on the dangers of distracted driving.

Lawmakers renew push to toughen texting law

A bipartisan group of lawmakers embarked Tuesday on a road that has resulted in a dead end in the past: getting the House and Senate to make texting while driving a “primary” traffic offense in Florida.

The Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee voted 7-1 --- following testimony from family members of people killed by texting motorists --- to approve a primary-offense bill (SB 90).

But the measure already faces questions over how the ban could be enforced without requiring motorists to be completely hands-free of wireless devices or if the law would create any noticeable change in motorists' behavior.

Sen. Dana Young, a Tampa Republican who voted for the measure, said the bill might also not go far enough in tackling the issue of drivers distracted by watching movies, scrolling through music playlists, applying makeup or even reading books.

“Why would you not just deal with the issue, which is the elephant in the room, which is distracted driving, careless driving,” Young said.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said he's seen statistics showing a move to enforcement as a primary offense fails to reduce crashes.

“My main concern here is not giving people false hope that this is going to solve the problem,” Clemens said. “If we really want to do something to solve the problem, we should just not have people be able to use their phones while driving.”

Florida law bars texting while driving, but the ban is enforced as a “secondary” offense, meaning motorists can only be cited if they are stopped for other reasons, such as speeding. If it becomes a primary offense, police could stop motorists for texting behind the wheel.

Bill sponsor Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said he is typically opposed to creating new regulations, but as the father of a daughters ages 17 and 20, “this is a public safety issue” and the proposal is intended to change people's behavior.

Clemens got an amendment added to the bill Tuesday that would require police to inform people stopped for texting while driving that they can decline searches of their devices.

Perry's proposal doesn't match a House proposal (HB 121) by Democratic Reps. Emily Slosberg of Boca Raton and Richard Stark of Weston, but he said they would hammer out the differences as the measures advance.

The House measure, along with making texting while driving a primary offense, would double fines for texting while driving in a school zone or through a school crossing.

Slosberg sought a texting ban in the 2017 session and has spent the past several months urging support from local governments. More than 20 counties and nearly 30 cities approved resolutions in support of making texting while driving a primary offense.

“As deaths are increasing, our laws are doing nothing to address it,” Slosberg said during a news conference held Tuesday in the Capitol by the FL DNT TXT N DRV Coalition.

The coalition is backed by the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

Slosberg's efforts to increase traffic safety are personal.

On Feb. 23, 1996, Slosberg and her twin sister, Dori, got into a car with friends. The driver, 19, was speeding 90 mph in a 50-mph zone when the car struck a median and crashed into a car heading east. Emily Slosberg survived the crash with a punctured lung and several broken bones. Dori was killed along with four other teenagers.

“I will never get my twin sister back, but I want to make sure Floridians and every other person in this state does not go through what I did,” Slosberg said.

Gwendolyn Reese, a St. Petersburg resident, said during the news conference that law enforcement needs the ability to stop motorists before more tragedies occur.

“When did we become a society that valued convenience and everything else above human life?” Reese asked.

Reese's 24-year-old niece Lavon Reese, a Florida State University student, was killed in Tallahassee in January 2015 when struck by a vehicle driven by a woman who was driving 89 mph while texting.

“I cannot say if it had been a primary offense that my niece would still be alive,” Reese said. “But I can think that quite possibly she would, because the woman who was speeding and texting would know she could be stopped for either.”

Perry's proposal still needs to get approved by three more Senate panels before it could go to the full Senate during the 2018 session, which starts in January.

Texting while driving is a primary or secondary offense in every state other than Montana.

Currently Florida joins Ohio, Nebraska, Arizona and South Dakota in listing texting while driving as a secondary offense, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Those other states each have some areas in which the law is a primary offense.