A bill that would change texting-while-driving to a ‘primary’ offense unanimously cleared a House committee on Tuesday, the first day of the 2018 Legislative Session.
The bill (HB 33), sponsored by Tampa Republican Jackie Toledo and Boca Raton Democrat Emily Slosberg, was considered by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee.
Florida was one of the last states in the union to address a texting-while-driving law back in 2013, but they made it a ‘secondary’ offense. That means law enforcement can’t pull over a motorist just for using a smartphone or other device while driving.
The latest legislation says a person can’t drive and text, email or instant message at the same time, and can be pulled over without having committed another infraction first, like speeding.
Similar laws already are in effect in 46 other states.
This year’s bill, however, would not penalize drivers who utilize the GPS app on their smartphone or make a phone call. That led to a couple of lawmakers on the panel questioning how law enforcement could differentiate.
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus also have expressed concerns that the proposed legislation could give law enforcement another reason to racially profile black motorists, and many of them oppose it.
St. Petersburg Democrat Wengay Newton, the lone African-American on the committee, questioned a state trooper about how he could detect if a motorist was improperly texting. Newton ultimately said he would support the bill moving to the next committee, but said he maintained serious reservations about it.
“I have to ask the tough questions,” he said.
Former state Rep. Irv Slosberg pushed back on criticism of the bill, referring to the debate over whether to make motorists not wearing a seat belt a primary offense.
Slosberg’s daughter Dori (the twin sister of Emily Slosberg) was killed in a car crash in 1996, and he shepherded the 2009 Dori Slosberg Seatbelt Safety Act through the Legislature. It requires drivers, front-seat passengers and anyone under 18 to wear a seat belt; it’s been credited with saving up to 500 lives every year.
Several members of the public spoke passionately about losing loved ones to motorists distracted by devices while driving, none more powerfully than Demetrius Branch.
“It is not acceptable for people to be dying in the streets of Florida!” he shouted. “I feel that a country that put a man on the moon with a pen, a piece of paper and a calculator can do better than this! This is unacceptable!”
Some believe the law should go further and make Florida a “hands-free” state, where it’s illegal to physically handle a smartphone in a car.
“It doesn’t go far enough in my opinion,” said Coconut Creek Democrat Kristin Jacobs, who still supported the bill.