SARASOTA — The long campaign to put Florida in line with 43 other states that allow law officers to ticket drivers solely for texting culminated Friday at Sarasota High School, where Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation making texting while driving a primary offense.
Many years in the making, the legislation expands on a bill approved in 2013 that made texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning drivers only could be ticketed for texting if they are pulled over for another infraction. Now officers can target drivers just for texting.
"I think it'll make our roads safer," DeSantis said Friday before signing the bill.
The penalty for a first offense would be $30 plus court costs. A second offense within five years would result in a $60 penalty plus court costs and three points on the driver’s license. A crash resulting from texting would result in six points on a driver’s license.
Drivers who rack up a lot of points can have their license suspended.
In school zones and construction zones, drivers could be ticketed for using any wireless communication device — including cellphones, laptops, tablets and gaming devices — “in a handheld manner.”
The bill requires officers to issue verbal warnings for hands-free violations through the end of the year. It also allows court clerks to dismiss a first offense if a driver provides proof that they have purchased “equipment that enables his or her personal wireless communications device to be used in hands-free manner.”
Supporters of the legislation have pointed to the proliferation of crashes stemming from distracted driving.
DeSantis said there were almost 50,000 crashes in Florida in 2016 related to distracted driving, and said texting while driving is one of the worst distractions.
"That's about five crashes every hour," DeSantis said. "These distracted driving crashes accounted for more than 3,500 serious injuries and 233 deaths."
Citing information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, DeSantis said drivers who text take their eyes off the road "for an average of five seconds, which at 55 miles an hour is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed."
The legislation was sponsored in the House by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and in the Senate by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who both attended the bill-signing ceremony Friday along with students, law enforcement officers and a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
“Today’s bill signing is a victory for the families and loved ones of those we’ve lost in traffic accidents,” Simpson said.
Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells said the legislation will make Florida roads safer.
"It is very difficult to do — almost impossible — for law enforcement to enforce texting while driving as a secondary offense," said Wells, who added that it's "critical" for parents to communicate with teenagers "how important it is to put the phone down."