Rick Scott signs texting-while-driving ban, but does it have teeth?

05/28/2013 2:43 PM

06/10/2013 7:09 PM

It may not be the strongest law, but texting while driving will be prohibited in Florida starting Oct. 1.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the ban into law Tuesday at an afternoon ceremony in Miami. The ban prohibits motorists from using cell phones to text or email while operating a car in most circumstances.

The in most circumstances, however, comes with plenty of wiggle room.

Drivers can continue to use phones for navigation, weather and to listen to the radio, and they can also use talk-to-text devices such as the iPhone’s Siri.

Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, can only pull a driver over if they’ve committed some other infraction — such as speeding. They also cannot require motorists to hand over their phone as proof they’ve been texting or emailing.

That means enforcing the ban, which carries a first-time fine of $30, could prove difficult.

Still, supporters say it’s a critical first step that can impact the habits of Florida’s 14 million licensed drivers, akin to the seat belt legislation of the 1980s.

“What I want is for mothers and dads to be able to say 'Don’t forget, don’t text while driving, it’s is against the law,’ ” said Senate sponsor Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who has been pushing for a ban for four years. “I can guarantee you none of your children is going to pull down the Florida state statutes and say, 'Boy, it’s only a second offense.’ Either we have a law or we don’t have a law.”

With Scott’s signature, Florida becomes the 41st state to ban texting while driving — though rules vary state to state. Scott signed the bill (SB 52) into law at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School, surrounded by law enforcement officials and near a sign that read “texting & driving ... it can wait.”

“Just the fact that it’ll be illegal to text and drive, I think that’s going to stop our teenagers, stop citizens from texting and driving,” Scott said. “We’re going to monitor this.”

Last week, Scott vetoed $1 million that was inserted into the state budget for a marketing campaign to explain the ban. He said Tuesday the money did not meet his criteria of being good for education or keeping the cost of living low.

“What I did is, I went through the budget, and I said, what’s gonna be good for jobs, what’s gonna be good for education, how do we keep our cost of living low and that’s how I looked at it,” Scott said.

Lawmakers have tried for five years to ban texting in Florida only to have their attempts thwarted by Republican House leaders. The logjam broke this year when new House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, signaled his support for the measure.

Polls have consistently showed most Floridians support a texting while driving ban.

Texting contributed to at least 189 crashes in Florida in 2012, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. But texting-related crashes are believed to be under-reported because texting has not been illegal.

Nationwide, more than 100,000 crashes a year involve drivers who are texting, according to the National Safety Council.

It will take years to know the impact of Florida’s watered-down ban.

A study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee conducted between 2007 and 2010 found that the ban was not as effective in states with weaker texting laws, such as Florida’s, and that the most-effective ban was outlawing cell phones entirely. The study also found that while crashes initially decreased after a ban, the decrease did not last.

Benjamin Fridman, 18, a senior at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School, where the ban was signed into law, said that although he thinks the law has “good intent,” it will be tough to enforce.

“Students here are chattering that they aren’t really deterred by the new bill,” Fridman said.

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