A bill that would allow police to pull people over for texting while driving took another step toward becoming law today, passing its third and final House committee.
"This is one of the most dangerous things in the world, texting while driving," Steve Augello, whose 17-year-old daughter was killed by another driver in a head-on crash in 2008, told legislators. "Right now we need to pass this and make it a primary offense. It will save lives."
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, still has to pass in both the House and Senate before becoming law.
If it passes, Florida would join 43 other states by making texting while driving a primary offense, allowing police to pull over drivers solely for sending messages while behind the wheel.
Texting while driving has been banned since 2013, but police have to pull over drivers for another reason before giving a citation.
The modest penalties for violating it would stay the same: $30 for a first offense and $60 for the second, plus court costs. A driver would incur three points on their record only on the second offense.
Currently, citations are exceedingly rare. In 2016, barely 1,400 people were ticketed for texting while driving, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.
But the proposal has prompted concerns by black legislators and civil rights advocates, who worry that giving police another reason to pull people over could lead to racial profiling.
"When the seatbelt law became the primary offense, people who look like me or have a similar hue, they were pulled over two to one," said Rep. Wengay "Newt" Newton, D-St. Petersburg, who is black.
Newton was referring to a 2014 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, which found that black drivers in Florida were nearly twice as likely as whites to be stopped for violating the state law requiring motorists wear seat belts.
The bill does provide some ways to curb potential civil rights abuses.
One amendment to the bill, proposed by Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami, and passed today, would require police to record the race and ethnicity of the drivers they stop for texting. Police are required to record race and ethnicity for seatbelt violations.
And if police want to search the driver's phone to confirm they were texting, the officer would have to first tell driver that they have the right to decline the search.
If the driver chooses not to let the officer search the phone and the officer still wants to see it, the officer would have to get a warrant.
Slosberg, whose twin sister Dori was one of five teens killed in a crash in 1996, said the bill could save lives.
"As a state, which must start sending the right message in every single community that this is deadly behavior," she said.