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

6:47 p.m Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 Politics
Florida Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, at her office in Deerfield Beach, Fla. Slosberg is the lead sponsor of a bill that would strengthen the state’s ban on texting while driving. (AP Photo/Terry Spencer)

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.

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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.