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Florida’s texting-and-driving law is getting tougher. Are there ways to get around it?

Gov. DeSantis hopes newly texting while driving signed bill will make roads safer

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Friday, May 17, 2019 making texting while driving a primary offense in Florida, meaning officers can pull over drivers spotted texting and driving.
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Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Friday, May 17, 2019 making texting while driving a primary offense in Florida, meaning officers can pull over drivers spotted texting and driving.

Florida has now made texting while driving a primary offense. This means you can get pulled over and ticketed for doing what so many have been doing for years.

Before the proposed law, an officer had to stop you for another infraction — like speeding or illegal lane changing, for example — but not solely because you were seen texting while rolling down the road. Texting while driving was a secondary offense.

Senate Bill 76 went to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval after the Florida House voted 108-7 and the Senate 33-5 in favor.

On Friday, DeSantis, who has maintained he supports such a law — signed the bill at Sarasota High School.

So get ready.

The new rules go into effect on July 1. These rules clarify the definition of “wireless communications device.”

The term means “any hand held device that is designed or intended to allow two-way voice communication, to receive or transmit text-based or character-based messages, to record or view images, to access or store data, or to connect to the internet or to any communications service.”

In other words, your iPhone, your significant others’ Android and your abuela’s Jitterbug.

The legislation’s intent is also stated: To “improve roadway safety for all vehicle operators [and] passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians and other road users. In Florida that could even mean alligators and runaway cows.

A herd of cows were caught on a sheriff's office helicopter video helping police corral a Florida car theft suspect who was running through a pasture in Seminole County.

There is a grace period before the repercussions for violators really hit.

From Oct. 1 to the end of Dec. 31, a law enforcement officer can stop you and issue verbal or written warnings in what legislators are calling an educational component. You’ve been warned. You’re aware.

Next, starting Jan. 1, theoretically armed with information that texting while driving is breaking the law, a law enforcement officer can pull you over if they see you driving while using a “wireless communications device” and issue citations that carry fees (about $30 plus court costs and fees for a first offense) and three points on your driving record — which will quite likely screw up your insurance rates.

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This change in Florida law would put the state on par with 43 others that allow drivers to be pulled over for texting and makes the violation a primary offense, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s 2019 figures. Some states including Florida, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota currently have violations noted as a secondary offense.

Technically, texting while driving is already illegal according to Florida statutes, but police can’t stop motorists for it.

While the law has a lot of bark, its bite could be somewhat less than formidable. California, Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and 10 other states ban all hand held devices for drivers.

How enforceable is the law? The Florida Highway Patrol is currently analyzing the bill and doesn’t have any comments yet, an FHP spokesman said.

There are exceptions in the proposed Florida law.

Here’s what you need to know.

What if I’m stopped a red light? Can I still tap out a text before the light changes?

Yes. You can still annoy the drivers behind you because you know you never finish that last thought before the light turns green again.

The language of the law reads, in part: “A motor vehicle that is stationary is not being operated and is not subject to the prohibition.”

I just saw someone riding on the hood of a car going 65 mph on I-95. Because Florida. Can I still call the police even if it means punching in the numbers or using Broward County’s new Text to 911 feature?

Yes. You can report an emergency or criminal or “suspicious activity” to law enforcement authorities, the Senate bill said.

Can I still use GPS programs like Waze or Google Maps to help me navigate around town?

Yes. If you are doing so in a hands-free manner for navigational purposes.

Can a law enforcement officer ask to see my device to see if I’ve been texting?

They can ask, but you don’t have to show it to them. They’d need a warrant to take your phone — er, wireless communications device — out of your hands.

There are a couple of exceptions.

“In the event of a crash resulting in death or serious bodily injury a user’s billing records for a wireless communications device or the testimony of, or written statements from, appropriate authorities receiving such messages may be admissible as evidence in any proceeding to determine whether a violation [h]as been committed,” the law reads.

Are certain roadways more subject to punishments?

Yes. You can’t peck away at your keyboard in school zones or construction zones (which MDX has ensured is practically all of our roads — so no texting curses to the department for making you late to work while you stew in traffic on the airport expressway). This means no fiddling about with your Waze while in a school zone.

What about the lost art of actual conversation? Can I still talk into my phone?

You can still talk into your phone or give it voice commands.

You can get out of a ticket and its points and fines if it’s your first offense for texting, you go before a judge and prove you have a hands-free Bluetooth device and agree to go to a driver’s safety course.

I have a Tesla and it tells me all sorts of things on a dashboard screen that is larger than my nightstand. Do I have to ignore my smart car?

No. The law says you can receive messages that are related to the operation or navigation of the vehicle or for safety-related information, including emergency, traffic or weather alerts, or data used primarily by the vehicle. The law also allows one to operate an autonomous vehicle in autonomous mode.

This does not mean you can play one of your Tesla’s on-board screen games while driving the car.

Some of these exceptions are why some House members voted against the bill, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Kamia Brown, D-Orange, and Anthony Sabatini, R-Lake. The latter questioned officers’ ability to “accurately enforce” the law since the language allows drives to use GPS systems for navigational purposes or would just hide their phones from cops’ prying eyes.

So what’s to stop you from telling an officer, “Hey, I wasn’t texting anyone. I was using my Waze.”

What about Uber drivers?

“Uber is supportive of efforts like this to help keep our roads safe,” said spokesman Javi Correoso. “Even before the new texting law was passed, we encouraged drivers to use phone mounts. In the coming weeks, we will share information with Uber driver-partners throughout the state on the new state law and tips for staying hands free.

“In addition to using a phone mount and wireless headset, Uber partners can communicate with riders within the driver app either hands-free or with one tap,” Correoso said. “Incoming messaging from riders sent through the app will be read aloud when voice navigation is enabled.”

The city of Tucson, Ariz., created a video to send a message about the potential for tragedy associated with texting while driving.

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Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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