Texting while driving bills stall over disagreement in Florida Legislature

The House and Senate can’t agree on how broad the law should be.
[DIRK SHADD   |  Tampa Bay Times]
[DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published April 24, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would allow police to stop Florida motorists for texting while driving has stalled in the Legislature yet again, with the House and Senate deadlocked over the difference between reading and typing on a cell phone.

With just days left in the two-month legislative session, supporters of the bill fear a repeat of years past, when efforts to crack down on distracted driving were stranded because of concerns about racial profiling.

This year, lawmakers are stuck on how far the ban on using a cell phone should go.

This year’s proposed House bill is essentially a repeat of last year’s. The bill would allow police to pull motorists over for typing on a phone, with limited exceptions. It passed the House on Tuesday with a 104-9 vote.

The Senate, however, has a much broader bill. The driver would not just have to be texting, but holding the phone and using it in almost any way. Drivers would, however, be allowed to use the phone through a car’s hands-free system.

And the Senate bill wouldn’t just limit it to phones, but any kind of wireless device, including tablets, laptops and game systems.

“The Senate version is a hands-free version,” said the Senate bill sponsor, Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. “The House version is, you can’t text while you’re driving, but you can read your phone while you’re driving.”

Texting while driving is already illegal, but police can’t pull motorists over just for that. Police can only cite drivers for texting if they pull them over for something else, such as speeding or running a red light.

To address the dangers of distracted driving, lawmakers in the Florida House have been trying for years to make texting a primary offense. If passed and signed into law, Florida would join 43 other states that have similar laws.

Lawmakers don’t have much time to work out the differences. In order to send a bill to the governor to sign into law, the House and Senate bills must be identical.

“We’ve got another week and a half,” Simpson said. “If we get this thing done, we can save a lot of lives.”

Last year, a texting-while-driving bill sailed through the House with the backing of then-Speaker Richard Corcoran. But it was blocked in the Senate by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who refused to hear it in the Appropriations Committee, where he is chairman.

Bradley cited concerns that the bill would allow police to view people’s cellphones, an invasion of privacy, and could lead to racial profiling.

Of the nine House members who voted against it Tuesday, some expressed similar reasons.

“These are issues that we cannot just brush under the rug,” said Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, on Tuesday. “These are issues that in the current climate of our national discourse, people are afraid to get into these debates. People are afraid to get into these conversations because they make us uncomfortable.”

A 2014 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that black drivers in Florida were nearly twice as likely as whites to be stopped for not wearing seat belts.

In response to that study, both the House and Senate bills include a provision that would require police to record the race and ethnicity of each person they cite for texting while driving.

Currently, hardly anyone is ever cited for it. In 2016, barely 1,400 people were ticketed for texting while driving. Last year, just 1,671 were.

And the penalties are weak. A first-time offense is just $30, plus court costs. Being cited a second time results in three points being counted against a driver’s record.