After years of stagnating in the Florida Legislature, a bill allowing police to pull over drivers who appear to be texting while driving will finally be heading to the governor’s desk. On Monday, The House voted in a landslide of 108-7 to turn texting and driving into a primary offense. The governor has already expressed that he expects to sign the bill, which would simply catch Florida up to the rest of the country, with most states already having enacted similar laws. The primary voice behind this bill has been Representative Emily Slosberg, who found herself severely injured by a reckless driver in an accident which killed her twin sister, along with four other teenagers, in 1996. While the state has watched the number of traffic crashes climb, the concern remained that a bill elevating texting while driving to a primary offense may encourage racial profiling and privacy invasion across the state.
“It’s a great day for our state of Florida,” Slosberg rejoiced after the vote on Monday, “We are going to have enforcement of our texting-while-driving law, which will save lives.” Once the bill takes effect, a first offense violation will carry a $30 fine, not including court costs, which could bring the total owed up to over $100. A second or subsequent violation committed within a five-year time frame would carry a $60 fine, not including court costs. If the bill is indeed signed by the governor, the attached law will include an automatic transition period, during which time police will only issue warnings. This will continue until the end of the year. Meanwhile, the state of Florida will conduct a statewide educational campaign.
The bill had to overcome significant objections from African American lawmakers, who shared their concerns that it may provide another excuse for racial profiling in Florida and result in more people of color being unfairly targeting for traffic stops. In an effort to acknowledge those concerns, the legislation now includes a specific requirement that police officers must track the race of each person they pull over for texting while driving. The Senate wished to also enact a new law that would forbid drivers from holding their phones at all while driving. However, the House was not ready at this time to agree. Instead, as a compromise, all phones used while driving in school or active construction zones must be put in hands-free mode.
Advocates celebrated Monday’s vote, but feel that cell phone restrictions should continue to become stricter. Debbie Wanninkhof, the mother of a boy who was killed by a distracted driver, commented on the outcome of the vote in a statement released by an advocacy group known as FL DNT TXTNDRV Coalition, “Even though we did not reach our goal, the passing of texting while driving as a primary offense is a positive step.” In Florida, while the number of motor vehicle accidents increased by 11 percent in the three years between 2013 and 2016, crashes specifically caused by careless drivers rose much more sharply- by over forty percent. When it comes to Emily Slosberg, she says that she will continue her fight for harsher laws and tougher penalties, in order to honor the senseless loss of her beloved twin sister.