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Florida Senate Bill Would Make Texting And Driving A Primary Offense

Florida Highway Patrol Public Affairs Officer Joe Sanchez, second from right, shows Gov. Rick Scott a car that was involved in a fatal accident and displayed in front of the Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School, Tuesday, May 28, 2013 in North Miami, Fla. Scott spoke to students at the school before signing a statewide ban on texting while driving into law. Senate Bill 90 would make the violation a primary offense. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

A Florida Senate bill, proposed by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, would make texting and driving a primary offense.

Perry’s Senate Bill 90 would make roads safer by making texting and driving a primary offense.  The bill has moved to the Senate Appropriations committee for review.

“What you are telling people are, as long as you aren’t doing something else, like speeding or running a red light, texting is ok,” Perry said of the current law, which states law enforcement can only write a ticket for texting and driving if the driver committed another offense.

Perry said he voted for the current law in 2013 that makes texting and driving a secondary offense, but at the time, he thought Florida could do better.

“I thought it was a step, but I had misgivings about it,” he said. “I voted for it but I thought it wasn’t going far enough.”

In the past four years, Perry has worked to make the policy stricter.

If the bill passes Appropriations, it will go to a vote by the full Senate. The bill would take effect Oct. 1 if signed into law.

The Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development subcommittee approved the bill on Jan. 23 with a 8-2 vote. Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, cast one of the dissenting votes.

“I have concerns with racial profiling, as well as the stopping of young people,” she said. “I don’t believe you can really tell someone’s texting and driving with the new technology of today.”

She requested an amendment be added that would require drivers to use hands-free technology, but Perry said no.

“If police can use texting and driving as a reason, they can use any reason,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s a valid question to bring up, but to think that all these police officers are racist. I just don’t think its valid here.”

The bill would also require law enforcement to tell drivers they are not required to show their phone to police if they are suspected of using the device while driving.

Lt. Patrick Riordan, a spokesperson for the Florida Highway Patrol, said he has never asked a driver for their phone to look at messages. He thinks it would detract from the law enforcement’s case against the driver if they start looking for additional proof, he said.

“That might defeat the purpose of the officer going into court and affirming the violation at the time,” he said.

FHP patrolmen are not trained to ask for drivers’ phones, but they can, if they want, Riordan said.

“I don’t know any other troopers that has,” he said.

Gainesville Police spokesperson Officer Ben Tobias said that as the law is currently written, it’s difficult for officers to enforce. He said police have to prove what drivers are doing on their phone, which is nearly impossible.

“It’s a good first step law,” Tobias said. “In my personal opinion, we need more.”

Tobias said the bill would change how Gainesville Police deals with enforcing laws on texting and driving.

“Changing it to a primary instead of a secondary is an absolute game changer,” he said. “We would be one step closer to be able to affect a stop if we see a device.”

Since texting and driving became a secondary offense in 2013, Gainesville Police has cited drivers 57 times, according to police records.

Tobias said the low number of citations is due to the secondary status of the infraction.

“Drivers have to have been doing something else in addition to using their wireless device, so it makes the law difficult to enforce,” he said.

Tobias said Florida should follow other states that have phone-in-hand laws.

“It’s become so rampant it’s common to see a driver with a phone in their hand,” he said. “We forget we are piloting giant pieces of metal that weight 3,000 to 4,000 pounds.”

About Meryl Kornfield

Meryl is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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