Support is building across Florida for a stronger texting-while-driving law, but some black legislators will fight the idea, claiming that it would invite more abuses by police.

A broad coalition of groups representing police, sheriffs, parents, retirees, doctors, businesses and others is mobilizing to pass a bill to elevate texting from a secondary to a primary offense, meaning police could ticket drivers who text, without needing another reason to stop them.

"It's time to strengthen the law," argues the FL DNT TXT N DRV Coalition. "Drivers who choose to text and drive are a danger not only to themselves, but to everyone else on the road."

The original 2013 Florida law made texting while driving subject to a $20 fine with no points assessed on a driver's record.

But as distracted driving crashes continue to rise steadily year after year, advocates say it's time to give police more enforcement power to reduce traffic injuries and deaths caused by distracted driving.

At least 25 local governments, including Miami-Dade County, also support making texting a primary offense.

But African-American lawmakers, citing racial disparities in studies of traffic stops and acts of police violence against blacks, are very wary of the idea.

"There's a concern that it could be a pretext to stop certain individuals," said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill, chairman of a 28-member legislative black caucus and an opponent of a tougher texting law.

Thurston cited a 2014 study by the American Civil Liberties Union that found that African-Americans were nearly twice as likely as whites to be stopped for violating a state law that requires motorists to wear seat belts.

"There is good reason to be concerned about more officer discretion," said Howard Simon, director of the ACLU of Florida. "Racial disparities in traffic law enforcement are well-documented. Black and Hispanic drivers are far more likely to be pulled over than white drivers for the same behaviors and offenses, and once stopped, people of color are more likely to be subjected to a police search."

Howard Simon, director of the ACLU of Florida.
Howard Simon, director of the ACLU of Florida.

The ACLU report found that in Pensacola's Escambia County, black motorists were four times more likely to be stopped and ticketed, and three times more likely in Palm Beach County.

"I don't really want to create another instance where police can pull people over," said another caucus member, Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa.

The black caucus, made up of 27 Democrats and one Republican, has not taken a formal position on the issue, and not all of its members oppose a stronger texting law.

Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Miami Democrat, said his experience as a former state prosecutor convinced him that a tougher texting law is needed.

"This is an opportunity to protect our highways and our drivers," said McGhee, who was elected Tuesday as the next leader of the House Democratic caucus, following the 2018 elections.

Another lawyer and caucus member, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he opposes a stricter texting ban.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

"We have enough problems with pretexts that allow stops and searches," Rouson said.

Rouson said the original law has not been in effect long enough to evaluate its effectiveness.

Florida is one of four states that makes texting a secondary driving offense. The others are Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota.

In 14 states and Washington, D.C., all cell phone use by drivers is against the law.

The number of distracted driving car crashes has steadily risen since the law took effect in 2013, from 39,000 that year to 49,000 last year, according to data compiled by the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Orange County reported more distracted driving accidents last year than any other county, with 6,094.

Hillsborough was second with 4,861, Miami-Dade was third with 4,340 and Broward was fourth with 4,175.

The Senate bill making texting a primary offense (SB 90) cleared the first of its four committee stops and is sponsored by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville.

At a recent hearing, senators heard tearful testimony from parents whose sons and daughters have been killed by distracted drivers.

Jodi Dominguez of Odessa lost her son, Michael Anthony Barberio, in a fatal crash in Georgia in 2008.

Dominguez cried as she described the loss of her 21-year-old son, who was looking forward to a career as a naval officer. He was on leave at the time of the crash, when his motorcycle was struck by a sport utility vehicle.

"We learned that the driver of the SUV had been momentarily distracted," Dominguez said. "Michael was buried with full military honors, surrounded by hundreds of friends."

The House texting bill (HB 121) is sponsored by Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and has not yet been heard.

The 2018 session of the Legislature begins Jan. 9.