State lawmakers will once again try to strengthen the state’s texting while driving during the 2017 Legislative Session.
Two bills have already been filed in the Florida House aimed at beefing up the state’s texting while driving ban. The first — House Bill 47, sponsored by Reps. Richard Stark and Emily Slosberg — removes language from state law that makes texting while driving a secondary offense, and increase penalties for someone caught using their device in a school zone.
The second bill — House Bill 69, sponsored by Slosberg — makes texting while driving a primary offense for juvenile drivers.
The state OK’d legislation in 2013 making it illegal to read or type text messages while driving. There were exceptions of course: Wireless devices could be used for GPS or reporting criminal behavior. And you can use them when the vehicle is stopped.
But lawmakers made texting while driving a secondary offense, making it difficult for law enforcement officers to ticket offenders. That’s because someone first needs to be pulled over for a different traffic infraction, like speeding or not wearing a seat belt, before they can issue a citation for texting and driving.
“It’s like the seat belt law used to be,” said Lt. Eddie Elmore, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. “As technology advances, sometimes … laws lag a couple of years behind the technology.”
And that’s why Slosberg is hopeful her bill to make texting while driving a primary offense will gain traction. She said by passing the measure, it would put the state’s texting while driving law on the same trajectory as the seat belt law.
“That’s how the seat belt law evolved,” she said. “First it was a secondary (offense). Then it became a primary for juveniles. Then it became a primary for everyone.”
Traffic safety is a deeply personal issue for Slosberg and her family. In 1996, Slosberg was in a car accident that killed five teenagers, including her twin sister, Dori. Emily Slosberg suffered serious injuries, including a punctured lung and broken bones.
Her father, Irv Slosberg, ran for the House a few years after the accident. He served in the Florida House from 2000 until 2006 and again from 2010 to 2016, making traffic safety his top priority. Emily Slosberg won the race to replace her father in the House District 91 earlier this year.
According to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, law enforcement officers issued 3,488 distracted driving texting citations between Oct. 1, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2015. The state agency reported in April that were more than 45,700 distracted driving crashes in 2015, resulting in more than 39,000 injuries and more than 200 deaths.
About 12 percent of drivers involved in distracted driving crashes were between the ages of 15 and 19, according to the agency.
Slosberg might be optimistic her bill will gain traction, but there’s still plenty of obstacles that could derail her effort. She’ll need the yet-to-be named House transportation chair to give it a hearing, something that has been a challenge in recent years.
“It’s really going to depend on the chairman of the transportation committee to take the bill out of the draw,” she said. “I can’t see why he wouldn’t. There’s an epidemic on these roads.”
A Senate companion to Slosberg’s bill hadn’t been filed as of Dec. 9, but Slosberg said she has been in discussions with members of the upper chamber about being a sponsor.