TALLAHASSEE — Better put your phone down. A bill that would allow police to stop drivers for texting while driving is heading to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval.
With little discussion, the Florida House on Monday voted 108-7 to send it to DeSantis, who has said he supports it.
If he approves the bill, starting July 1, 2020, motorists could be stopped and ticketed for texting while driving. Florida would join 43 other states that allow drivers to be pulled over for texting.
Texting while driving is currently illegal, but police can’t stop motorists for it. It’s a glitch in the law that legislators have been trying for years to fix, but have been stymied over concerns about racial profiling.
Under the bill, drivers would be prohibited from typing on their phone while driving, except for narrow circumstances, like using it to call police. And drivers would be prohibited from tapping on their phones at all in school zones and work zones. Motorists are still, however, allowed to talk into their phones.
The bill does provide a grace period for motorists where they will get warnings, not tickets.
While the law goes into effect in July, starting on Oct. 1, law enforcement will only issue warnings. On Jan. 1, police would resume stopping drivers and issue tickets. The penalty for a first offense would be $30, plus court costs that could more than double the initial penalty. A second offense within five years of the first one would result in a $60 fine, plus court costs, and three points on the driver’s license.
Even after getting a ticket, drivers would have a way to get out of any points and fines, as long as it’s the driver’s first offense for texting.
If drivers go to the court clerk with proof of purchase of a hands-free bluetooth device, they could attend a driver safety course instead of incurring points and paying the ticket.
The bill’s successful passage comes after years of attempts and reams of testimony by parents who lost loved ones from distracted drivers.
“I am absolutely so excited that we are finally here to get this done,” said Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, who has sponsored the bill the last two years.
The bill is a compromise between the House, which has passed the bill for the last few years, and the Senate, which has blocked it over the same span because of civil rights concerns.
After the Legislature passed a bill allowing police to stop motorists for driving without a seat belt, studies showed that black drivers were targeted more than white drivers.
To allay those concerns, the bill heading to DeSantis would require police to note the race and ethnicity of each ticketed driver and send the data to the Legislature.
And lawmakers have also had privacy concerns about police searching someone’s phone for evidence that they were texting.
If an officer asks to search a driver’s cell phone, the bill requires the officer to notify the driver that they can refuse the search, and that the officer needs a warrant to search the phone.
“Consent to search a motor vehicle operator’s wireless communications device must be voluntary and unequivocal,” the bill states.
Only in a crash resulting in death or serious injury could police or prosecutors get a driver’s cell phone bill records to show they were texting, according to the bill.
If DeSantis gets the bill this week, he has seven days to sign it.