The Florida Legislature is finally set to consider legislation Tuesday that would make texting while driving a primary offense. It's about time. Most states already have addressed this issue, and this is a practical approach to making the roads safer.
The full House and Senate are taking up similar bills. The House bill, HB 107, sponsored by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, would simply ban texting while driving. The Senate version, SB 76, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, would go farther and prohibit holding a smart phone at all while driving, requiring hands-free technology like Bluetooth. Both bills would allow smart phones to be used as navigation devices, and neither would ban their use while a car is stationary. Either would make Florida's roads safer, but the Senate bill takes the better approach in making it illegal to hold a phone to text or to talk. Forty-three states already make texting while driving a primary offense, unlike current Florida law, which keeps officers from pulling over texting drivers unless they are breaking another law.
This is by far the closest Florida has come to joining the enlightened majority of states. The evidence is overwhelming that such a ban is necessary. Texting or even talking on a cellphone while driving is incredibly dangerous, even more so than drunken driving, according to some studies. Last year, distracted drivers caused more than 50,000 accidents in Florida, and in 2017 more than 200 people died on Florida's roads because of them.
There have been civil liberties concerns about banning texting, particularly whether it could lead to a disproportionate number of drivers of color being pulled over. But the bills would require law-enforcement officers to record the race and ethnicity of people they cite for texting while driving. That data base should help to identify any such issues, and the heightened awareness should help prevent problems in the first place.
The House bill also addresses a privacy concern by making clear that drivers don't have to turn their phones over to officers without a warrant, so that a routine traffic stop won't become a way for government to snoop through the store of intimate personal details that can be kept on a smart phone, a measure that should be in the final compromise. An earlier version of the Senate bill was overly broad and would have allowed police to pull drivers over for all sorts of distracted driving, including eating, reading, writing, grooming, applying beauty products or interactions with pets or unsecured cargo. None of those activities are wise, but it's better to limit policing of distractions to clearly defined ones such as holding a smart phone.
The Senate bill would allow police to give warnings from Oct. 1 until year's end. As of the New Year, holding a phone while driving would become a ticketable offense.
Florida should join the vast majority of states where texting while driving already is a primary offense. The two chambers should pass their bills this week and then work toward the Senate version in seeking a final compromise measure. For the sake of safety, it's time to make it illegal to hold a smart phone to text or talk while driving.