Hands-free part of Florida's texting and driving law in effect

School and work zones became hands-free starting Tuesday

By Ashley Spicer - Reporter, anchor, Jennifer Ready - Reporter, Jake Stofan - Tallahassee corespondent

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Beginning Tuesday, Florida drivers must put down their phones in all school and active work zones. It's the second phase of a distracted driving law passed by the Legislature earlier this year. 

On July 1, texting while driving became a primary offense in Florida. That means troopers can stop drivers for texting and driving. Unless it's a dangerous driving situation, the Florida Highway Patrol said that it is issuing warnings to drivers texting behind the wheel to educate them about the law through the end of this year.  

According to the FHP, between July 1 and Sept. 17, troopers issued 438 warnings. From July 1 to Sept. 11, 542 citations were issued statewide by all law enforcement agencies, troopers said.

The sponsor of the legislation, state Rep. Jackie Toledo, said the slow rollout was by design.

"We did give them discretion to either ticket or not ticket and educate and warn," Toledo said.

The penalty for a first offense of texting while driving is a $30 fine and zero points on the offender's driver's license.

Starting Oct. 1, all school zones, school crossings and active construction zones will be completely hands-free for driver. The penalty is a $60 fine and three points on the offender's driver's license. It’s a harsher penalty than the $30 for texting while driving.

"Because there are children around in those areas. There are active workers and construction workers so, really, the areas that are most vulnerable," Toledo said.

Between Tuesday and Dec. 31, troopers will issue warnings for drivers caught using their phones in a school or active work zone. Starting Jan. 1, drivers may be issued a citation.

During a ride-along with Nassau County Sheriff's Office traffic Deputy Dallas Palecek on Tuesday, we noticed drivers were confused about what hands-free means. Deputies said the driver cannot have a phone in their hands. That applies not just to texting, but also to being on a call or looking at a GPS map on your phone.

Palecek said this new law is making it much easier for law enforcement to cite people for distracted driving because if officer sees a phone in your hand, they don’t have to prove what you were doing on it.

All three people Palecek stopped for a violation Tuesday seemed unaware of the new law. They all got warnings.

The first driver admitted to being talking on her phone, but didn't realize it is now against the law in certain zones. Another driver made an excuse as to why she was holding her phone. The third driver said she didn't know why she was being stopped because she wasn't texting, but we clearly saw her holding up her phone and looking at it for an extended amount of time.

Highway Patrol Lt. Derrick Rahming said the agency's intent is to give drivers warnings until the start of the new year.

"To educate the person, not just to give them a fine or anything like that, but they want to make sure that they're educated and they understand what the law actually is," Rahming said.

Lawmakers don’t expect fully hands-free legislation to get serious consideration until 2020. Toledo said it will give them time to examine how effective the current law is at curbing auto accidents.

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