At the start of the year, there were three bills in the Florida Legislature that sought to address a glaring problem: police could not stop a driver using a cell phone to text or otherwise while driving. The ban is only a secondary offense under the current law, and police could only issue a citation if there is some other reason for the stop.
I previously discussed those three bills, one in the Senate and two in the House, here. But there has been a big change to one of those bills that is looking to make an aggressive leap in the fight against distracted driving.
Senate Bill 76 has undergone a substantive rewrite from its previous version that addresses much more than changing the current law from a secondary offense to a primary offense. Last week, the Senate Committee on Infrastructure and Security introduced and passed a committee substitute bill that was then forwarded on to the Committee on Innovation, Industry, and Technology.
The new CS/SB 76 would now target any distracted driving, not just texting while driving. Under the proposed law, distracted driving would be defined as inattentive driving that would include reading, writing, performing personal grooming, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, or engaging in any other activity that causes distraction. The proposed law would ban the use of cell phones and other wireless communication devices unless the device is being used hands-free with, for example, a Bluetooth device or in a voice-operated mode.
This change is meaningful. Distracted driving isn’t just texting while driving. It also includes hand writing things while driving. It includes eating or grooming while driving. I presently represent the family of a man who was killed on his bicycle by a driver who was reaching down to get a lighter and “didn’t see him.” That excuse was okay for law enforcement. It wouldn’t be, anymore, under CS/SB 76.
Under the bill, a violation would be treated as a non-criminal moving violation. This would be an upgrade from the present law, section 316.305, which is treated as a nonmoving violation. The change is important because House Bill 71 and Senate Bill 158 would provide criminal penalties for any driver that commits serious bodily injury or death to a vulnerable road user (VRU), such as pedestrians and cyclists, if that driver is committing a moving violation. If these bills were passed, there would now be some teeth in punishing distracted drivers who injure or kill others on the road.
There are other details in the bill that are worth reviewing regarding implementation, educational courses that would be provided for drivers in violation as well as for the public at large, and the introduction of cell phone billing records into evidence.
One issue that the bill doesn’t address, which was raised last session, is that there is no provision made to ensure this proposed law would not be used to target minorities for traffic stops. That issue is addressed in House Bill 45, but that bill was withdrawn from any consideration.
CS/SB 76 is a drastic enhancement from the prior version of the bill of which I expressed my own concerns over. There is finally some movement on protecting cyclists and pedestrians, and we have to keep it going. In my prior post, here, I’ve provided links to the committees that are considering these bills. The legislators are also listed there, with their contact information. It is imperative that Floridians reach out to legislators on these committees that are deciding these bills. We can make change, but we have to do something more than just complain on social media.