Hurdle cleared to make texting and driving in Florida a primary offense

Senate Bill 90 would authorize law enforcement officers to stop vehicles and issue citations to people who are texting while driving. 

You know you're not supposed to be texting and driving, but people still do. The reason, some say, is because Florida has some of the most lax distracted driving laws in the nation.

But on Tuesday, a State Senate Committee took a major step toward making texting and driving a primary offense. That means drivers would not have to be doing something else wrong before they could be cited for it.

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10 Investigates has done a series of reports on this topic, questioning why Florida remains one of the few states in the entire country where texting behind the wheel is considered secondary offense.

“You're taking the focus off of where it should be, which is driving,” said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol.

All day every day, law enforcement sees Florida drivers on their phones, but under current law it’s considered a secondary offense, meaning cops can't pull you over for it unless they see you doing something else wrong first.

“So it can be a little bit difficult to do the actual enforcement of the actual texting law itself,” said Gaskins.

It's been frustrating and deadly.

10Investigates presented a series of reports over the past two years showing the growing numbers of those injured and killed by distracted drivers in Florida, and how those numbers have come down in other states where they made it a primary offense.

We then sent those facts and figures to state lawmakers who kept claiming they hadn't seen enough evidence to act. Now they could.

On Tuesday, after hearing from several parents and relatives of loved ones killed by distracted drivers, the Senate Committee finally moved Senate Bill 90 forward.

“It's unfortunate that we didn't adopt it as early as we probably should,” said Matt Nasworthy, a spokesman for AAA the Auto Club.

AAA has lobbied heavily for the change, and considers SB 90 a step in the right direction. But they say it’s no silver bullet.

That's because Florida law still specifically uses the word “texting”. It could be difficult, say critics, to prove whether someone is actually doing that versus checking a map or some other function in their smart phone.

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“The law may not be perfect, but again it puts us in a better space,” said Nasworthy. “It makes people more apt to be safer out there behind the wheel.”

Proponents say there is standardized training for law enforcement agencies to discern what constitutes “texting”.

A late amendment to the bill would also remind drivers they are not obligated to hand their phone over to law enforcement, and that searching a phone without consent or a warrant has been deemed unconstitutional.

“You can do your text messages at a stoplight or a stop sign, when the vehicle is not moving<” said Sgt. Gaskins. “Real simple, if the wheels are turning on your vehicle - no pushing buttons.”

From here, SB 90 would still have to clear three more committees before heading to the full legislature.

Until then, Florida remains one of just four states in the nation, where texting while driving is not considered a primary offense.

If the bill does became law it would take effect October of next year.