TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Law-enforcement officers could pull over motorists they see texting and driving, under a measure approved Tuesday by the House despite concerns the change could increase racial profiling.
However, the Senate is set to vote Wednesday on a different proposal that would only allow motorists to use hands-free wireless devices when they are traveling on Florida roads, a restriction that House leaders haven’t supported.
The House voted 104-9 on the proposal (HB 107) by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, that would shift texting while driving from a “secondary” offense to a “primary” offense.
Currently, police can only cite motorists for texting behind the wheel if they are pulled over for other reasons. By making it a primary offense, police could pull over motorists for texting while driving.
Thomas Schneider, the owner of Open Road Bicycles in Jacksonville, believes stricter laws will saves lives. He bikes about 200 miles every week and sees the dangers every day.
"My wife and I have actually been hit by a distracted driver," Schneider said. "The guy was on his cellphone."
The House approved a similar measure last year, but the proposal failed to advance in the Senate.
“This bill is about one thing, saving lives,” said Slosberg, who has followed her father, former Rep. Irv Slosberg, in pushing for traffic-safety changes in the Legislature.
Emily Slosberg’s twin sister, Dori, was killed in 1996 when a speeding car in which they were passengers struck a median and crashed into an oncoming car.
As part of the House bill, law-enforcement officers would have to record the race and ethnicity of people who receive citations for texting while driving, which could allow tracking if certain motorists are being targeted.
Numerous black and Hispanic lawmakers raised concerns that making texting while driving a primary offense would lead to increased racial profiling of minority motorists.
Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Lauderdale Lakes, said she voted for the bill to save lives but wasn’t happy about how the measure could impact the “children that I serve.”
Williams said her son, who is a law enforcement officer, told her “you know you’re going to have problems with those officers not wearing the uniform for the right reasons.”
Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, also raised concerns about law-enforcement officers targeting people of color like herself.
“These are issues that we cannot just brush under the rug,” Joseph said. “These are issues that in the current climate of our national discourse, people are afraid to get into these debates. People are afraid to get into these conversations because they make us uncomfortable.”
Rep. Al Jacquet, a Lantana Democrat who opposed the bill, warned of the potential repercussions of the measure.
“We’re going to look, and I want you to remember these words, we’re going to look back and we’re going to say, ‘Boy, were we wrong,’ ” Jacquet said. “While we had the right idea, the right mindset, the way we laid it out created a whole new problem.”
Meanwhile, without questions or comments, the Senate on Tuesday set up for a final vote its hands-free wireless proposal (SB 76).
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican next in line to become Senate president, is supported by traffic-safety advocates who want motorists to put down cell phones and other devices.
Both proposals would toughen the state’s longstanding ban on texting while driving, with the Senate measure also making it a primary offense.
Efforts in prior sessions in the Senate to toughen the law to a primary offense have failed, at least in part, because of concerns about racial profiling.
As part of Simpson’s proposal, county clerks of court would be able to dismiss cases of first-time offenders when violators buy wireless communications devices that can be used hands-free.