A new proposal to tackle distracted driving in Florida doesn’t just go after drivers hypnotized by their phones — it also outlaws petting dogs behind the wheel and other specific distractions.
Right now, texting while driving is a secondary offense in Florida, meaning police can cite a driver caught texting at the wheel only if the driver was first pulled over for another violation.
State Rep. Jackie Toledo and Sen. Wilton Simpson’s new bill would change that by defining any kind of distracted driving (texting included) as a grounds for cops to stop a driver and cite him or her, according to the Tampa Bay Times. An earlier version of their proposal would have only made holding a phone behind the wheel a primary offense, the Times reports, but earlier this month lawmakers decided to expand the bill and list more distractions — furry or otherwise.
“The focus of this bill is to save lives and get people’s behavior to change,” said Toledo, a Tampa Republican, the Times reports. “While you’re driving, you should be focused on driving.”
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Florida lawmakers’ bill defines “driving while distracted” as being inattentive at the wheel and lists a smorgasbord of activities that run afoul of the proposal, including but not limited to “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.”
A survey completed by AAA and a pet travel products company in 2011 found that 52 percent of people pet their dogs while they drive and 17 percent let their dog sit on their lap, according to AAA. And 29 percent of those surveyed admitted their dog had distracted them behind the wheel, AAA found.
Animal distractions have been targeted outside Florida in the past, including in Mantua, Ohio, where police said in a November 2018 Facebook post that a new distracted driving law meant “drivers will not be allowed to hold an animal or allow an animal to distract their ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.”
Critics of texting and driving describe the problem in stark terms — particularly in Florida.
“It’s an epidemic, frankly,” said Keyna Cory, coordinator of Florida’s Don’t Text and Drive Coalition, according to the Sun-Sentinel. “We all know young people do it, but I’m now seeing older people doing it as well.”
The proposal in Florida would bring its laws more in line with others around the country, given that — as of last year — Florida was one of a handful of states nationwide where texting and driving remained a secondary offense, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Toledo said the expanded scope of the bill was needed because texting isn’t the only problem on the roads, WTSP reports.
“There are other distractions, and you probably have seen it on the roads when you’re driving,” Toledo told WTSP in an interview. “People are applying makeup, they might be shaving — so there’s a lot of distractions, and I think this bill is comprehensive and it will be model legislation that other states could follow.”
At least one supporter of the earlier, narrower bill worried the new proposal went too far by including pet distractions and other specifics.
“I understand the intent and purpose,” said state Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, the Times reports. “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.”
But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called the proposal “a good bill,” the Times reports, saying that “when we say inattentive, we mean, ‘I saw them turn around, look over, jerk the wheel three times, run a stop sign or a traffic light’” — not that someone just pet their dog with one hand while driving safely and looking ahead.
Florida isn’t the only state mulling stricter distracted driving laws: Nevada’s state assembly is considering a bill this week that would empower police to search the phones of drivers involved in crashes to see if the phone was involved, and officers could suspend a driver’s license for 90 days if the driver refused, McClatchy reported.