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Tougher texting while driving law in Florida approved by Gov. DeSantis

The new law goes into effect July 1, but some police feel it doesn’t go far enough.
CHRIS ZUPPA | Times A woman holding a cell phone drives through the intersection of 4th Street North and 22nd Avenue on Tuesday, 05/28/2013. Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law that prohibits texting while driving starting October 1st.
Published May 17
Updated May 17

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Friday that toughens Florida’s prohibition on texting while driving, hoping to crack down on one of the most dangerous forms of distracted driving.

Starting July 1, police will be allowed to stop and ticket drivers for texting while they’re behind the wheel of a moving car, with limited exceptions. Drivers will still be able to use their phone while their car is stopped.

Speaking at a Sarasota high school Friday, DeSantis called texting “one of the worst of all driving distractions,” and said it’s caused thousands of accidents and hundreds of deaths in the state.

“You can see people really lose control on the road,” DeSantis said. “I’ve seen it myself.”

Texting while driving has been illegal in Florida for years, but police can’t stop you for it. Because of that, it’s barely been enforced — not even 1,700 tickets were issued for it in the state last year.

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Lawmakers and the governor said they hope the new law will change the culture of driving in Florida, a state notorious both in statistics and in stories for the dangerous habits of its drivers.

A sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said he hoped putting down the phone will be as common as putting on a seat belt — even if drivers might bristle at the additional regulation.

“Back then we thought, ‘Why are we having to wear seat belts? Why is the government intruding in our lives?’” said Simpson. “And as we know today, no one would get in the vehicle without putting their children and themselves in a seat belt. It’s second nature.”

Making it easier to stop drivers for texting was the top priority of the Florida Police Chiefs Association this legislative session, Bradenton police Chief Melanie Evans said.

But some police feel the new law doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Drivers are still allowed to use their phones to navigate, make phone calls and read emergency messages, such as weather alerts.

The only exception is in school and work zones, where drivers are not allowed to be handling their phones except for emergencies. That provision takes effect Oct. 1, but police will only stop and warn drivers about this part of the new law up until Jan. 1. Then, starting New Year’s Day, police will start issuing tickets in school and work zones for drivers who handle their phones, but aren’t necessarily texting.

And the penalties are still weak. It’s just a $30 fine plus court fees for a first offense. For a second offense, it’s $60 plus court fees and three points on a driver’s record. Texting within a school or work zone carries points on the first offense.

Lawmakers have tried for years to allow police to crack down on distracted drivers, led by representatives Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton. On Friday, Toledo called texting while driving an “epidemic.”

“We all see it, and frankly, we’ve all done it,” she said.

But the Legislature has failed to pass the bill for years over civil rights concerns. This year’s law passed with two important provisions.

For one, police have to record the race and ethnicity of each driver they ticket and send that information to the state, so officials can see whether the new law is being applied unevenly.

And it can be difficult for police to prove whether someone was texting, rather than using a navigation app like Google Maps. To prevent police from using a stop as a means to search a driver’s phone, lawmakers required that police have to tell drivers that they have the right to decline a search of their phone.

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