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Seven things to know about the texting while driving ban headed to Ron DeSantis’ desk

Can you text at a stop light? Can you still use Google maps? Could officers search your phone?
Drivers checking their phones while stopped at a red light heading south on 4th Street N at the 22nd Avenue intersection in St. Petersburg. [Dirk Shadd | Times files (2013)]
Drivers checking their phones while stopped at a red light heading south on 4th Street N at the 22nd Avenue intersection in St. Petersburg. [Dirk Shadd | Times files (2013)]
Published Apr. 25, 2019
Updated May 1, 2019

This story has been updated to reflect the most recent version of the bill.

A bill that would make texting while driving a primary offense has reached its last hurdle, but what does that actually mean for motorists in Florida?

On Monday, the Florida House voted 108-7 to approve a bill that would allow officers to ticket people just for texting while driving. Now, it’s headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval. As it stands today, texting while driving is illegal, but it’s a secondary offense. This means police officers can only cite drivers for texting while driving if they are pulled over for other reasons such as speeding and running a red light.

If the measure is signed into law, Florida will join 43 states that already make texting while driving a primary offense.

As we wait for DeSantis’ decision, here are seven things to know about the bill.

1. The bill doesn’t ban the use of cell phone while a car is stationary.

According to the bill text, “a motor vehicle that is stationary is not being operated and is not subject to the prohibition in this paragraph."

So what does that mean? The term is not defined in the bill, but Brooks Timmons, a legislative assistant for Sen. Wilton Simpson, clarified that stationary means a vehicle is not in motion. So, if your vehicle is stopped at a red light or stuck in traffic, you can technically use your phone.

Even if the measure isn’t signed in to law, stationary vehicles are not subject to enforcement under the current texting while driving bill.

2. The bill requires officers to record the race and ethnicity of people who are cited.

Beginning Feb. 1, 2020, data regarding the race and ethnicity of those pulled over for texting while driving will be reviewed and submitted to the governor, the president of the senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives. This data will highlight if certain motorists are being targeted.

3. Motorists don’t have to give their phones to officers without a warrant.

If a person is pulled over for texting while driving, officers are required to inform the motorist of his or her right to decline a search of his or her cellphone. Without a warrant or voluntary consent from the driver, the officer cannot search the motorist’s phone.

The one exception to this rule is if a crash results in death or injury. If that happens, a motorist’s billing records for their cellphone will be considered as admissible evidence.

4. You can still legally use your cell phone for navigation purposes.

If you have a poor sense of direction, don’t worry -- you’ll still be able to use your favorite GPS service without fear of being pulled over. (The current texting while driving ban also allows for this.)

5. Work zones and school zones are hands-free areas.

Motorists must use hands-free devices while driving in work zones and school zones. This includes cell phones, tablets and gaming systems.

6. The legislation does not apply to self-driving cars.

The House and Senate bills do not apply to people who are operating an autonomous vehicle.

7. Because the content of the bill could change, the bill’s effective date is to be determined .

As it’s written now, texting while driving would become a primary offense July 1.

The portion of the bill regarding work zones and school zones would take effect Oct. 1, but wouldn’t carry fines until Jan. 1, 2020. Between that time, officers are allowed to issue verbal and written warnings.

However, there is confusion about whether the grace period would apply to the whole bill or just the portion regarding hands-free driving. Based on the current bill text, that grace period only applies to the hands-free section.

Given that, it is possible that the effective dates could be clarified before the bill is presented to DeSantis.

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