Starting Tuesday October 1, 2013, Florida joined 40 other states in the U.S. where it is now illegal to text and drive.
According to an article from The St. Augustine Record, the prohibition on texting while driving comes after several years of trying by legislators. Previous attempts stalled in the face of House Republican opposition, with conservative members worried about government intrusion into people’s lives.
Some have called the law “watered down” since it is only a secondary offense to read or send a text, email or instant message on a smartphone while driving. That means police have to first stop drivers for another offense, such as an illegal turn.
Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office said deputies “have discretion” when deciding whether to add a citation for illegal texting or to simply issue a warning.
“In order to stop for texting, we’ve already observed them breaking another law,” Mulligan said. “We’re looking for things that are unsafe. The same thing you’re looking for in DUI cases.”
Mark Samson of the St. Augustine Police Department said his department will handle the enforcement of the texting law the same way as the Sheriff’s Office.
“I don’t really expect a big surge to begin with,” Samson said. “We’re not going to go out looking for it.”
Part of the difficulty in enforcing the new law is that drivers can be using their phones but not texting. It’s very difficult for an officer to discern the difference from his patrol car.
But they can tell when someone is driving in an unsafe manner. Often, the reason for that is texting.
“Many times when we see (drivers) texting, it appears as if they are impaired,” Mulligan said. “We stop people all the time for weaving all over the road … simply because they were texting.”
While many people have found themselves trying to text and drive, the new law will hopefully curtail the activity, Samson said.
“It is important; it affects a lot of people,” he said. “It (texting) is not a safe thing to do. You’re pulling your senses away from where they need to be.”
State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, the sponsor of the legislation, said it will still act as a deterrent — especially among teenagers just starting to drive.
“My whole purpose in the law is just to be able to tell teenagers that texting while driving is against the law,” said Detert, who plans to visit a Sarasota County high school on Tuesday to point out the new ban. “I’m not sure how many of them are going to pull down a copy of the Florida statutes.”
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles also plans to target teenage drivers to remind them about the ban. The agency is running a public service announcement in 69 high schools across the state today and again on Oct. 15.
The Department of Transportation plans to remind drivers about the ban through its digital billboards along state highways.
Drivers who text take their eyes off the road for almost five seconds, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry. At 55 mph, a driver can cross the equivalent of a football field while not looking.
There were 256,443 reported crashes in Florida in 2012. In 4,841 of those crashes, a driver had been texting or otherwise using an “electronic communication device” while driving, according to a preliminary report from Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The ban covers tablet computers as well as mobile phones but excludes using a talk-to-text feature. It also allows texting while stopped at a red light.
This effort comes at a great time for teen drivers as National Teen Driver Safety Week (NTDSW) is scheduled to take place on October 20-26, 2013.