Barring an unexpected veto, Florida will soon have a new texting and driving law. Here’s a look at the bill that passed the Legislature during last week’s flurry of votes. Texting and driving was already illegal in Florida. How does the new bill change the law?

According to the Daytona Beach Journal, the new law advances Florida’s rule against texting while driving in a couple of ways. First, it makes texting (including messaging, emailing and other forms of typing on a mobile device) a primary violation, rather than a secondary violation. That means cops can stop you solely on suspicion of texting while driving. Next, it more broadly bans any use of a handheld cell phone while operating a motor vehicle in a designated school crossing or school zone or a road work zone. Hands-free uses remain legal.

What are the penalties?

The penalties remain the same: a noncriminal traffic infraction that carries a $30 base fine plus court costs and fees for a first violation; a second violation within five years after that is considered a moving violation carrying a $60 base fine plus court costs and fees. Drivers caught texting will also be dinged 3 points against their licenses.

When does the law go into effect?

Assuming no veto, texting while driving becomes a primary offense on July 1. The ban on handheld use in school and work zones can be enforced starting Oct. 1, with an education period of warnings until Jan. 1, when fines can be imposed. “During the education period drivers that are pulled over can fight the ticket by proving they purchased an item that allows them to go hands-free while driving,” said Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, one of the co-sponsors of the bill.

What is allowed?

Texting at a stoplight or while a vehicle is stationary is not an offense. Emergency personnel are exempted, as are people reporting an emergency or criminal activity to police and those receiving messages related to the navigation or operation of their vehicle or safety-related information such as emergency traffic or weather alerts.

Will the new law be enforceable?

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said enforcing a law on texting while driving “is gonna be a little difficult,” just as it is with seat belts. Officers have to be able to see the violation often while they are driving, and motorists are not required to show or surrender their devices without warrants, which aren’t readily available during traffic stops. But ultimately, Chitwood said making texting while driving a primary offense is a step in the right direction. “It’s needed when you think of the lives that have been shattered because of texting and driving.”

Was it Needed?

Think what you want, but AAA research shows people who text and driver are eight times more likely to be involved in a crash. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported more than 51,000 crashes involving distracted drivers statewide last year. The number of traffic fatalities in Florida has topped 3,000 each year since 2016, a statistic some law-enforcement officials say is due in part to distracted driving. Mark Jenkins, a spokesman for AAA, said: “When driving without seat belts became a primary violation, more people began wearing seat belts. We’re hoping as a result of this law, fewer drivers will text.”

Now, I can tell you have been asked many questions about the new law from my friends and clients. “What about GPS?” “How do they know if I am texting or playing a game?” “What if it’s an email, not a text?” The truth is, right now we don’t know. We need to see the actual language of the law, once it’s signed by the Governor. Then we will start making our legal arguments as we start to defend these tickets and see what works and what doesn’t. If I had to guess, one of these cases will make its way through the courts in less than a year.
Stay tuned …

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