Holding your phone, putting on makeup or petting your dog while driving could all be illegal in Florida if state legislators pass a new bill that outlaws distracted driving.
Rep. Jackie Toledo and Sen. Wilton Simpson, who are sponsoring the legislation, contend Florida needs stricter laws for safer roads. They feel the best way to keep drivers and pedestrians safe is to eliminate distractions behind the wheel and put the focus back on driving.
“The focus of this bill is to save lives and get people’s behavior to change,” said Toledo, R-Tampa. “While you’re driving, you should be focused on driving.”
But opponents say the proposed law is too broad and raises concerns about racial profiling and unequal enforcement.
Currently, Florida drivers can hold a phone in their hands. But using one to text, write emails or send other messages is a secondary offense, meaning police officers must have another reason to pull someone over before they can issue a citation. They also need evidence that the driver was using the phone to send a message.
Toledo and Simpson, R-Trilby, filed bills that originally sought to make holding a cellphone while driving a primary offense. This would mean law enforcement would not need to prove an individual was writing a message.
But the legislation took a new direction in a Senate committee hearing last week. Senators on the Infrastructure and Security Committee decided to broaden the bills and target any action that distracts a driver.
The amended legislation lists several tasks that would be illegal while behind the wheel: reading, writing, performing personal grooming, applying a beauty aid or similar products, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, and using a “personal wireless communications device” such as a cell phone.
The bill also includes a clause that could apply to any number of actions not listed: “engaging in any other activity, conduct, task, or action that causes distraction.”
That provision could be a problem, according to Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
“This gives law enforcement license to pull anyone over at any time for anything,” he said. “It’s completely subjective,” and would lead to uncertainty about what is and isn’t legal.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, signed on as a co-sponsor of the Senate bill when it dealt with cell phone use while driving. But he said the broader nature of the amendment makes him think twice about supporting it going forward.
“I understand the intent and purpose,” Rouson said. “But what creeps into this is what constitutes a distraction and can it open drivers up to profiling or discriminatory treatment based on culture or personal choice.”
Currently, Florida is one of three states that doesn’t allow law enforcement officers to pull drivers over just because they are on their cellphones. It is currently a secondary offense, meaning officers can cite drivers for texting only after stopping them for other reasons, such as speeding. The current offense brings a $30 fine, plus local add-on fees.
The bills, if passed, would give Florida some of the toughest laws against distracted driving in the nation.
Florida is one of the worst states in the country for distracted driving. According to the state department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were almost 50,000 crashes involving distracted drivers in Florida in 2016. This breaks down to more than five crashes every hour. These distracted driving crashes accounted for more than 3,500 serious injuries and 233 deaths.
Distracted drivers can cause severe accidents resulting in catastrophic injuries and even wrongful death. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident caused by a distracted driver, our Florida Auto Accident Attorneys at Whittel & Melton can help.
We can investigate the cause of your crash and determine if the other driver involved was using their cellphone or engaging in other acts of distracted driving, like eating, applying makeup, or even tending to a pet. We can use this evidence to establish liability, with the hopes of obtaining financial compensation for your losses.