Texting and driving: House ready to pass tougher law but Senate balks

The Florida House is poised to pass a bill to strengthen enforcement against texting while driving Thursday, but the Senate appears be putting on the brakes as the session approaches its close next week.

The bill (HB 33), which the House on Wednesday positioned for a vote, would make texting while driving a primary traffic offense, allowing police to pull over motorists for texting. It is currently a secondary offense, which means police can write tickets for texting only after stopping motorists for other reasons, such as speeding. The current offense brings a $30 fine, plus local add-on fees.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

While prohibiting driving and texting, the bill would allow motorists to continue to use smart phones for making calls or getting directions while driving.

But Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley has expressed concerns about driver privacy and profiling by police, and he has not let the Senate version come to a vote in his committee. Bradley, R-Fleming Island and a former prosecutor, said a tougher law would pose considerations such as “increasing the likelihood of pretextual stops” and increasing “government-citizen involvement tenfold potentially.”

The sponsor of the Senate bill (SB 90), Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, acknowledged “legitimate” concerns by Bradley and others that a primary-offense law could potentially be abused, but he said those negatives shouldn’t outweigh the intent, which is to reduce distracted driving and crashes.

But House co-sponsor Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray Beach, told The Palm Beach Post she’s perplexed by the bill’s stalling in the Senate.

“The number-one cause of deaths is traffic fatalities,” she said. ““I hope there’s not a massive fatality before the Senate makes safety a priority.”

She also said her bill “strikes the proper balance between privacy rights and safety.”

She was challenged about this, however, by fellow Palm Beach County Democrat, Rep. Al Jacquet, on the House floor Wednesday. He asked if the sponsors had considered unintended consequences.

Jacquet, of Delray Beach, later told The Post, “This opens the door for unfettered profiling that can be sexual, racial, whatever. This legislates probable cause away. Law enforcement officers can simply make the statement that you were texting and you weren’t.”

He also called Slosberg’s bill “a good idea, but bad legislation.”

To try to address concerns about racial profiling, the House and Senate versions were amended in committee to require law-enforcement officers to record the race and ethnicity of each person pulled over for texting while driving.

Rep. Jackie Toledo, a Tampa Republican who is also a sponsor, said recording the information is intended to allow people to track if racial profiling is occurring.

“If that problem does occur, it depends upon whether it’s isolated to one city or county, and then we’ll talk to that sheriff or police chief and get that problem rectified,” Toledo said. “But texting and driving doesn’t discriminate. Everyone does it.”

Toledo added that law-enforcement officers will be trained to discern if motorists are texting or using cell phones or other handheld device for such things as phone calls.

While the exact training officers will receive is not outlined in the bill, Slosberg said she’s confident they will be well-prepared to know “the difference between a guy going down the road texting and someone making a few taps on their phone.”

But Jacquet said, “This is an attempt at a quick fix. The unintended consequences are devastating, disastrous.”

Regarding the stalling of the bill in the Senate, Jacquet said he was “very happy that the Senate is really going about it the right way.”

Slosberg said that since the secondary traffic offense law took effect, “violations have been issued and I have not heard any drivers complain about law enforcement officers attacking the privacy rights of drivers who have been cited. It is critical that do all we can to ensure that we do not lose another life on Florida’s roadways to a texting driver.”

Florida is one of four states that don’t make texting while driving a primary offense.

Records requested by The Palm Beach Post showed crash reports listing distracted driving rose 10 percent in Florida in 2016, and injuries associated with texting rose 45 percent in Palm Beach County.

Next Up in Politics

New Democratic poll shows tight race in primary for governor
New Democratic poll shows tight race in primary for governor

Five Democrats running for governor, from left: Andrew Gillum, Jeff Greene, Chris King, Philip Levine, Gwen Graham. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post) Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is clinging to a within-the-margin-of-error polling lead over former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham in the five-candidate...
Democratic House candidate airs TV ad saying she won’t back Pelosi for speaker
Democratic House candidate airs TV ad saying she won’t back Pelosi for speaker

Kathy Manning, the Democratic nominee in North Carolina's 13th Congressional District, is airing a new TV ad in which she declares that she will not back Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for speaker, becoming the latest candidate to buck her party's House leader.  Manning, who is running against Rep. Ted Budd, R, in the Republican-leaning district...
Feel the Bern: Sanders to campaign with Andrew Gillum in Tampa, Orlando
Feel the Bern: Sanders to campaign with Andrew Gillum in Tampa, Orlando

Andrew Gillum hopes to tap into some of the Berniemania that was on display in Miami last year when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders made an appearance. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post) Democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders got shellacked by Hillary Clinton in Florida’s 2016 presidential primary. But...
Twitter suspends Infowars founder’s account over a Tweet
Twitter suspends Infowars founder’s account over a Tweet

Twitter on Tuesday suspended the account of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for a week after he tweeted a link to a video calling for supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready against media and others, in a violation of the company’s rules against inciting violence.  The action effectively prevents Jones from tweeting...
The New York Times joins effort to combat Trump’s anti-press rhetoric
The New York Times joins effort to combat Trump’s anti-press rhetoric

 The call to arms came in the form of a memo.  Marjorie Pritchard, the deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe, reached out to editorial boards at other newspapers last week.  “We propose to publish an editorial on August 16 on the dangers of the administration’s assault on the press and ask others to commit to publishing...
More Stories