JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Dan Mackey knows a thing about the dangers of texting while driving. He spent months in rehab in 2016 after another driver struck his car on Philips Highway.
So the 70-year-old Jacksonville man was thrilled when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law Friday that allows police officers to pull over drivers if they’re caught texting behind the wheel.
The new law is “going to save a lot of Floridians and people visiting our great state,” said Mackey, whose only criticism of the legislation might be that it didn’t happen a whole lot sooner.
In addition to outlawing texting while driving, the new law bans the use of handheld devices for those driving through school and construction zones. Tickets for violations start at $30.
Even though Mackey’s crash happened three years ago, he can still remember the sequence of events like it was yesterday.
“It was in mid-summer, we were sitting at a red light with a friend and by the grace of God we had our seatbelts on,” he recalled. “A lady hit us doing well over 50 mph while texting.”
The collision was so sudden and violent, Mackey likened it to a combination from legendary boxer Mike Tyson – back when Tyson was in his prime, of course.
“To this day I am still seeing my spine doctor periodically and every once in a while I wear a back brace because the pain just doesn’t play,” he said.
Mackey’s story isn’t unique. In fact, as DeSantis pointed out recently, Florida had nearly 50,000 traffic crashes caused by distracted driving in 2016, resulting in 233 deaths.
“You shouldn’t be on your phone while driving in the first place,” said Max O’Brien, another Jacksonville resident. “So, I think moving it up to a primary offense is fine.”
Florida is one of the last states to make texting while driving a primary offense. Currently, only 16 states have introduced a total “hands-free” law, with Georgia adding its own version in 2018.
There are, however, exceptions to the rules. Drivers are still allowed to use GPS or Bluetooth as long as they’re not traveling through marked construction or school zones.
Enforcing the law could present a challenge for officers, who must recognize whether a driver is texting or using GPS to navigate, said St. Johns County Sheriff’s spokesperson Chuck Mulligan.
“But many times the individuals are so distracted you can actually drive right up beside them, look over, see what they are doing and then obviously pull them over for that,” Mulligan said.
The law goes into effect July 1, though there will be a grace period. Warnings will be given until January. Afterward, officers can begin writing citations.
Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.