Lawmakers move closer on texting while driving measure

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Senate on Thursday accepted most of the House version of a bill that would allow law-enforcement officers to pull over motorists for texting while driving.

However, under a Senate change, motorists would only be able to use hands-free wireless devices in school zones and work zones -- something that was not approved by the House. The bill now will have to return to the House for further consideration.

Senate sponsor Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, had initially sought to impose a requirement of hands-free devices whenever motorists travel on the state’s roads.

“Hands free is where we should be,” he said. “Many, many lives will be saved by the texting and driving bill. Many more lives would be saved by the complete hands-free bill.”

After making the change about hands-free devices in school and work zones, the Senate voted 35-5 to approve the bill (HB 107). Voting against the measure were Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island; Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville; Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota; and Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach.

The core of the bill, approved by both the House and Senate, would make texting while driving a “primary” traffic 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.

The House voted 104-9 on Tuesday to approve the bill.

Making texting while driving a primary offense has raised concerns among numerous black and Hispanic lawmakers, who are concerned it would lead to increased racial profiling of minority motorists. Similar concerns helped derail proposals to make texting while driving a primary offense in past sessions.

To address concerns about racial profiling, the bill would require arresting officers to record the race and ethnicity of violators, with annual reports of statewide arrests submitted starting Feb. 1, 2020.

Under Simpson’s proposal, the changes would be phased in, with ticketing beginning Jan. 1.

From Oct. 1 through the end of the year, only verbal and written warnings would be issued to people stopped for texting while driving.

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.