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  1. Transportation

Florida lawmakers target no-nos behind the wheel: texting, makeup, petting your dog and more

Tampa Bay area lawmakers Jackie Toledo and Wilton Simpson originally filed bills against cell phone use by drivers. Now their legislation also targets other forms of distracted driving.
Clearwater Police Sgt. Stephen Wannos talks to the driver of a silver SUV he pulled over as part of a 2017 crackdown on speeding and distracted driving on U.S. 19. There are two forms of distracted driving that are enforceable, Wannos said: driving while wearing headphones and, as a secondary offense, driving while texting. Two bills filed this session seek to expand the definition of distracted driving to other actions, like holding a dog or putting on makeup.
Published Feb. 22

Holding your phone, putting on makeup or petting your dog while driving could all be illegal in Florida if state legislators pass a new bill that outlaws distracted driving.

Rep. Jackie Toledo and Sen. Wilton Simpson, who are sponsoring the legislation, contend Florida needs stricter laws for safer roads. The best way to keep drivers and pedestrians safe, they say, is to eliminate distractions behind the wheel and put the focus back on driving.

"The focus of this bill is to save lives and get people's behavior to change," said Toledo, R-Tampa. "While you're driving, you should be focused on driving."

But opponents say the proposed law is too broad and raises concerns about racial profiling and unequal enforcement.

Currently, Florida drivers can hold a phone in their hands. But using one to text, write emails or send other messages is a secondary offense, meaning police officers must have another reason to pull someone over before they can issue a citation. They also need evidence that the driver was using the phone to send a message.

Toledo and Simpson, R-Trilby, filed bills that originally sought to make holding a cell phone while driving a primary offense. This would mean law enforcement would not need to prove an individual was writing a message.

But the legislation took a new direction in a Senate committee hearing last week. Senators on the Infrastructure and Security Committee decided to broaden the bills and target any action that distracts a driver.

MORE: Visit the Times Transportation page to stay current on the many ways we get around in Tampa Bay.

The amended legislation lists several tasks that would be illegal while behind the wheel: reading, writing, performing personal grooming, applying a beauty aid or similar products, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, and using a "personal wireless communications device" such as a cell phone.

The bill also includes a clause that could apply to any number of actions not listed: "engaging in any other activity, conduct, task, or action that causes distraction."

That provision could be a problem, according to Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

"This gives law enforcement license to pull anyone over at any time for anything," he said. "It's completely subjective," and would lead to uncertainty about what is and isn't legal.

Take eating while driving, for example. Snacking on chips, eating a hamburger or drinking coffee aren't enumerated as illegal activities. But could they lead to a ticket? According to Toledo, it depends.

"If you're eating with silverware, that would be distracted," Toledo said. "But if you have a hand on the wheel, your eyes are up, and you're shoving food into your mouth … that's different."

Simpson cast it a different way: "If (law enforcement is) following behind you and you're traveling 40 mph then 60 then 40 and swerving lane to lane and you happen to be eating, well, that's distracted driving."

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who called the legislation "a good bill," said the distinction is that deputies and officers have to prove the distraction caused the driver to be inattentive.

There is a difference, he said, between petting your dog with one hand while your eyes are on the road and running a stop sign as you wrangle a dog in the back seat. Same with an individual who is watching traffic as they eat a burger with one hand and another person who is using two hands to unwrap a sandwich as they steer the wheel with their knees and swerve between lanes.

"When we say inattentive, we mean, 'I saw them turn around, look over, jerk the wheel three times, run a stop sign or a traffic light," Gualtieri said.

For the most part, people realize when an action is getting in the way of their driving, but that isn't always enough for them to change the habit.

"People know they shouldn't be doing these things, but they also know we can't stop them for it because it's a secondary offense," Gualtieri said. "If it doesn't feel right, it's probably not right."

The broad wording of the bill would allow the law to apply to new types of technology that may arise in the future. Such a move prevents legislators from constantly having to amend the law each time some new gadget is developed, Simpson said.

It also would significantly change Florida's posture compared to other states, Toledo said. Now one of only four states where texting is a secondary offense, Florida would have one of the strictest distracted driving laws in the country if the new legislation is passed.

Michelle Levin, 42, said she has been rear-ended twice since moving to Florida in 2016. Both times, the Apollo Beach resident said she was at a complete stop. While cell phone use is her biggest concern, she said she supports a law that bans all distracted driving.

"I don't think I can drive 15 minutes without seeing a driver unable to remain in their lane. And about 98 percent of the time when I observe, they are looking down at their phones," Levin said. "But doing one's mascara, cutting toenails or reading that novel are all things I've seen that could certainly wait."

Jason Goley, 40, of Palmetto said distracted driving is a danger that needs to be addressed. But these bills, he said, seem too subjective to be fair or effective. He's also worried such a law could be abused.

"As a primary offense, officers can pull anybody over and simply say the driver did something that he or she interrupted as a distraction," Goley said.

The new direction of the legislation has helped win over some supporters, like House Speaker José Oliva. But others are questioning whether the language goes too far.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, signed on as a co-sponsor of the Senate bill when it dealt with cell phone use while driving. But he said the broader nature of the amendment makes him think twice about supporting it going forward.

"I understand the intent and purpose," Rouson said. "But what creeps into this is what constitutes a distraction and can it open drivers up to profiling or discriminatory treatment based on culture or personal choice."

Simpson said he does not share that concern and trusts law enforcement "to do the right thing."

"Those are the same officers that are protecting our lives every day, running into danger and harm to save our lives," he said. "I don't think law enforcement abuses any of the tools we give them."

Enforcing laws that are not clearly defined is not a new problem for deputies and officers, Gualtieri said.

"You want the law to be as clear as it can be, as unambiguous as possible, but that's not always the case with the law," Gualtieri said. "This is a little early in the process to get concerned about what may be ambiguities. This bill has a long way to go and that may clear up some of those things."

The Senate bill still needs to pass through three more committees. Its companion bill in the House was assigned to three committees but has yet to be placed on an agenda.

Toledo said she was assured it would go before the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee during the first week of the legislative session, which starts March 5.

The bills could face more changes as more legislators review the language and members of the public weigh in.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727-893-8779). Follow @cljohnst.

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