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Florida Senate bill would make texting while driving primary offense

A bill winding its way through the Florida Legislature would make texting while driving a primary offense, making it easier for law enforcement to cite someone.

Texting while driving became a secondary offense in Florida in 2013, which means a driver has to be pulled over for something else, such as speeding, driving recklessly or running a stop sign, before they can be ticketed for texting behind the wheel.

Drivers can be fined $30 for texting. And it took a four-year legislative battle for that to pass. Talking on a cellphone is not prohibited.

Last week the Senate Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities discussed SB 144, introduced by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah. The committee okayed the bill that’s in its infancy, while agreeing it needs more work.

Among the questions raised: Why stop at texting? Shouldn’t any use of an electronic device, such as making emailing, Googling or using other applications also be banned? What proof is there that a texting-while-driving ban reduces crashes? How can a law enforcement officer determine whether someone is texting while driving?

And: How would enforcement work when there’s a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found law enforcement must get a warrant to search someone’s cellphone?

“Law enforcement officers around the state are seeing the consequences of distracted drivers, and quite frankly it’s scary,” Shane Bennett, chief of the Lawtey Police Department and a member of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, told the committee. “The current ban on texting is almost impossible to enforce. It is a secondary offense, and the public knows this.”

Bennett said making texting while driving a primary offense would discourage the deadly behavior and save lives, but he said it would be hard to prove the driver was texting and not making a call.

However, Bennett said sometimes officers can see from their own vehicle that a driver is obviously texting because the driver is holding it on the steering wheel.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said, while many states have texting-while-driving bans, there’s no proof it reduces accident rates.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health indicates that crash-related hospitalizations fell by 7 percent in states that have passed the bans.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said it’s common sense that if a driver fears being pulled over for texting, he or she will think twice before texting.

A similar bill in the state House — HB 69, co-sponsored by Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton — would make texting while driving illegal for drivers under age 18.

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