LATEST: As deaths rise, state out to toughen texting-while-driving law

Florida is one of only four states that hasn’t made texting while driving a primary offense, meaning that law enforcement can’t pull over a motorist solely for typing out a text on their cellphone.

But that may soon change.

A bill filed Wednesday in the state House of Representatives would toughen the law and, proponents assert, reduce the number of people injured and killed on the state’s roadways.

“Motorist fatalities are the highest they’ve been in our state in 10 years, and it’s all attributable to distracted driving, people looking at their phones and not paying attention to the road or bicyclists or pedestrians or each other,” said Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, who is a co-sponsor of House Bill 33.

“This is a big victory for the state. We’re going to prevent injuries and deaths on our roads.”

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Crash reports indicated distracted driving climbed 10 percent in Florida between 2015 and 2016. Injuries in those wrecks increased 16 percent to 78,723 and deaths rose 13 percent to 1,591 in 2016 compared to the previous year, according to statistics that The Post requested from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

In Palm Beach County, crashes and injuries associated with distracted driving rose about 9 percent compared to 2015 and deaths increased by one to 106, records show.

Under the proposed legislation, a first violation for texting while driving results in a $30 citation plus court costs, for a total fine of up to $108.

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A second violation within five years carries a $60 citation and up to $158 in total fines, plus three points added to the license of a driver.

Violations that result in a crash would add six points to a driver’s record and getting ticketed in a school zone would result in an added two points.

“It’s not everything I want, but it’s a small bite of the apple,” Slosberg said. “It’s a start.”

To become law, the bill must be moved through several committees in both the state House and Senate before going to a vote in both chambers. Gov. Rick Scott must then sign the bill into law.

Attempts to beef up texting laws in recent years have all been snuffed out before they could get to a vote. Slosberg thinks this time will be different, particularly because House Speaker Richard Corcoran is backing the legislation.

“I’m incredibly optimistic,” Slosberg said. “I don’t think anyone in our legislature can validly say there isn’t a culture of texting while driving on our roadways. Anywhere you go in this state, you see it.”

Under current state law, texting while driving is considered a secondary offense. That means police must witness a driver committing a primary traffic infraction — such as speeding or running a stop sign — before a citation can be issued for texting.

Slosberg’s father, former state representative Irv Slosberg, was instrumental in 2009 in passing the state law requiring motorists to wear safety belts.

“If I don’t put on a seat belt, that’s my life I’m putting in jeopardy,” Emily Slosberg said Wednesday. “But when I get into a car with a phone in my hand and I start driving, I’m putting your life, your kids’ lives — every Floridian’s life — in jeopardy. That’s why this is so important.”

The proposed bill protects civil liberties by requiring a warrant to access a driver’s phone. It also requires a law-enforcement officer who stops a motor vehicle for a violation of the ban to inform the driver of his or her right to decline a search of the phone.

Besides Florida, the only states that don’t treat texting while driving as a primary offense are Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.

>>RELATED: Texting while driving - Shocking number in one age group say it’s ok

Staff writer Charles Elmore contributed to this story.

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