By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Law enforcement officers could pull over motorists they see texting and driving on Florida roads, under a bill now headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
With a vote of 108-7, the House on Monday passed a compromise measure (HB 107) that blends a ban on texting and driving with a requirement that motorists travel hands-free of wireless devices in school zones and work zones.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican behind the Senate effort, had sought to make the hands-free requirement statewide. Simpson is slated to take over as Senate president following the 2020 elections.
The House’s passage of the bill Monday came after the Senate approved a series of health-care measures sought by House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.
If signed into law, texting while driving would be a “primary” traffic offense. Currently, police can only cite motorists for texting behind the wheel if they are pulled over for other reasons. By making it a primary offense, police could pull over motorists solely for texting while driving.
Oliva, a Miami Republican, credited the Senate’s willingness to compromise for the advancement of the proposal, which proponents have sought for years.
“I think as you saw there was some amendments put on regarding school zones and construction areas where workers are present and a couple of smaller fixes,” Oliva told reporters following Monday’s floor session.
Last week, DeSantis said he supported the House’s efforts to make texting while driving a primary traffic offense.
“This stuff has got to be enforceable,” the governor said Wednesday. “If it’s a primary offense, then people are going to get pulled over. So, you’ve got to make sure that is going to happen. The more you go beyond texting, I just have concerns about the administrability of it.”
Rep. Emily Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat who co-sponsored the House bill with Tampa Republican Jackie Toledo, said the state is catching up with the rest of the nation. Slosberg said the goal is to get Florida fully hands-free.
“It means Florida’s roads are finally going to be safer. It’s huge,” Slosberg told The News Service of Florida following the bill’s passage. “This means the safety of Florida’s citizens, Florida’s drivers, and especially Florida’s children, by adding the extra protections in school zones.”
Slosberg, who has followed her father, former Rep. Irv Slosberg, in pushing for traffic-safety changes in the Legislature, called the vote “surreal.”
Emily Slosberg’s twin sister, Dori, was killed in 1996 when a speeding car in which they were passengers struck a median and crashed into an oncoming vehicle.
Toledo said the “blending” of the bills “will make our bill much better.”
Under the bill, changes would be phased in, with ticketing beginning Jan. 1.
From Oct. 1 through the end of the year, only verbal and written warnings would be issued to people stopped for texting while driving.
As part of Simpson’s proposal, county clerks of court would be able to dismiss cases of first-time offenders when violators buy wireless communications devices that can be used hands-free.
Making texting while driving a primary offense has raised concerns among numerous black and Hispanic lawmakers, who fear it would lead to increased racial profiling of minority motorists. Similar concerns helped derail previous attempts to make texting while driving a primary offense.
To address concerns about racial profiling, the bill headed to DeSantis would require officers to record the race and ethnicity of violators, with annual reports of statewide arrests submitted to the governor, Senate president and House speaker starting Feb. 1, 2020.