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Most Florida police are not writing tickets for texting while driving despite new law

An unidentified driver holds a cellphone while negotiating a right turn from Ashley Drive onto John F. Kennedy Boulevard Monday, July 1 in Tampa. The new law, which took effect that same day, gives law enforcement the ability to stop a driver if they see them texting while driving. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Jul. 25

People who text while driving are starting to get pulled over in Florida, but few of those stops have resulted in tickets so far.

Whether or not a driver will get a citation and fine for texting in Tampa Bay depends on where the car is and which officer makes the stop.

The Tampa Bay Times contacted seven local law enforcement agencies to see how their deputies and officers are handling the new law, which went into effect on July 1. Most are taking an education-first approach, holding off on tickets until more drivers are aware of the changes in the law.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers were told in a June 27 directive to issue written warnings through the end of the year.

"Our normal policy when we are rolling out a new traffic law statute, we typically give warnings for the first six months as a way for people to adjust," Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins said. "Education is just as important to us as enforcement is."

RELATED: Officers welcome new texting-while-driving ban but see challenges enforcing it

Even agencies who say they are issuing tickets seem to be reticent to write them. Deputies from Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, for example, are writing tickets for texting while driving, spokesman Sgt. Spencer Gross said. But as of July 18, Pinellas deputies had written only two tickets. A majority of the encounters led to warnings, with deputies issuing 13 to drivers in the same time period.

The numbers from other agencies are similar. Within the first couple weeks of July, the Hillsborough and Pasco sheriff's offices each issued one ticket for the offense. The St. Petersburg Police department hadn't issued a single ticket. Neither had deputies in Hernando County.

Statewide, only 36 tickets were issued during the same time period, according to data maintained by the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

"It's the beginning and we really just want to make sure everyone understands this is a primary offense," St. Petersburg Police spokeswoman Sandra Bentil said.

The low number of tickets could be related to the multiple loopholes in the legislation. Drivers aren't violating the law if they are texting at a stop light, using a navigation app or getting a weather update.

It can be difficult to determine exactly how a driver is using a phone, whether they're sending an email or tracking directions.

But Gaskins thinks it's much more simple than that:

"If you're pushing buttons, then you're breaking the law," Gaskins said. "I don't need training to tell if someone is typing on a phone."

If an officer does pull someone over, issuing a citation isn't so easy. The driver doesn't have to hand over the phone, and officers can't access the phone without a warrant.

Jeff Clarke, 58, of Tampa, admits he texts while driving, but thinks the law should be strictly enforced with a three-figure fine. Under the new law, a first offense carries a $30 fine plus court fees. A second offense is $60 and court fees, plus three points on the driver's record.

"The truth of the matter is, I've become addicted to my phone," Clarke said. "If I'm driving somewhere and I get a text from a customer and they need something, I rationalize to myself that I can do both things at the same time if I hold the phone up by the wheel.

"There are some times I need to be protected from myself, and this is one of them."

Related: 7 things you need to know about the texting while driving ban

Clarke drives frequently between South Tampa and the University of South Florida area. He often travels down Bayshore Boulevard, Dale Mabry Highway and Fowler Avenue. It doesn't seem to matter where he drives; every trip he sees someone typing on their phone while behind the wheel.

"I don't know about others, but until I am faced with consequences, a lot of times I don't necessarily deal with the issue," Clarke said. "If I had a big fine and points on my record, that would get my attention."

Tim Armstrong of Clearwater doesn't need a ticket to show him how serious the matter is. Armstrong's car was slammed from behind while stopped at a red light on Thanksgiving four years ago. No one was injured, but both cars were totaled. The other driver, who had just gotten in town from Chicago, was texting his family to let them know he arrived.

"I think since it's law now, it should be enforced strictly as a law, with a ticket or fine," Armstrong said. "The education (and) warning phase has passed."

Still, Armstrong thinks the likelihood of an officer pulling someone over specifically for texting is doubtful, pointing to what he says is a low ratio of drivers who are stopped for speeding.

"I see drivers texting while sitting at a light, a stop sign and driving down the road, it seems to be ubiquitous here," Armstrong said. "I've been here 23 years but this texting and driving thing has me frustrated."

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

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