Police in Florida have ticketed just 542 drivers for texting while driving since a new law took effect July 1, a highway patrol official told lawmakers on Wednesday.
That translates to about 7 tickets per day for a state with a population of 21 million, not including tourists.
But that low number is intentional. Florida Highway Patrol troopers, along with most police in the state, are opting to warn drivers rather than ticket them so that they can alert them about the new law.
“We’re asking our troopers to spread the word through warnings,” Florida Highway Patrol Chief Mark Brown said.
From July 1 to Sept. 11, troopers have issued 438 warnings. That will change in January, when police statewide start ticketing drivers who type on their phones when their car is moving.
In May, the Legislature beefed up the state’s ban on texting while driving, joining 43 other states with similar laws. It’s always been illegal, but police couldn’t pull you over for it until the new law went into effect.
Brown said many people are aware of the new law, but it hasn’t stopped them from texting, which remains one of the most dangerous actions people make.
“It’s still a little early,” Brown told members of the House’s Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee. “I don’t know that it’s changing behavior at this point.”
Instead, Brown said some drivers are using an exception in the law as an excuse to text while behind the wheel. The Legislature’s bill allows drivers to still use their phones to navigate, make phone calls and read emergency messages.
Brown said he stopped someone a few months ago who was speeding and using a phone. When he walked up to the driver, the driver said they were aware of the loophole, he said.
“The first thing they actually told me was, ‘I’m doing navigation, you can’t do anything about it,’” Brown said. “They know the law.”
Another part of the law takes effect on Oct. 1. Starting then, police will be able to stop drivers who text while driving in school or work zones.
Police can’t issue tickets for it until Jan. 1, 2020. But when they do, the penalties will be much tougher than texting on normal stretches of road.
The penalty now for using a phone behind the wheel of a moving vehicle is weak. It’s a non-moving violation, with no points on the driver’s record. The fine is only $30, in addition to court costs that vary by county and can run more than $200.
Starting Jan. 1, texting in a school or work zone will be a moving violation with three points on a driving record, plus a $60 fine.
Lawmakers for years tried to allow police to stop drivers who text, but the efforts failed over concerns that police would use it as a new way to profile minorities. A 2016 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that black drivers in Florida were nearly twice as likely to be stopped for not wearing a seat belt as white drivers.
The bill the Legislature passed last year requires police to track the race and ethnicity of the motorists they ticket for texting.
Brown said he didn’t know the breakdown of drivers who have been ticketed so far. Those stats will be released in a report by Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to the governor and Legislature by Feb. 1, 2020.
The new law includes a second civil rights component. If an officer stops a driver and wants to search the driver’s phone, the officer must tell the driver that they have a right to decline the search.
So far, troopers are issuing tickets for drivers who are especially reckless, Brown said. Still, troopers are encouraged to issue warnings, using the traffic stop as a chance to hand drivers a small sheet explaining the new law.
He said the department used a similar approach after the Legislature passed a law more than a decade ago allowing police to stop motorists for not wearing their seat belts.
“Most agencies are taking a soft approach, like we are,” Brown said.