On October 1, 2013, drivers in the State of Florida will have to exercise greater caution with their electronic devices while they are driving, or risk being fined by law enforcement. After the 2013 Legislative Session, Governor Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 52, which created Florida Statute §316.305, cited as the “Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law."
Under the new law, a person may not operate a motor vehicle while manually typing or entering multiple letters, numbers, symbols, or other characters into a wireless communications device or while sending or reading data on such a device for the purpose of non-voice communication, including, but not limited to, communication methods known as texting, e-mailing, and instant messaging. The term “wireless communications device” means any handheld device used or capable of being used in a handheld manner that is designed or intended to receive or transmit text or character-based messages, access or store data, or connect to the internet. However, the law states that a motor vehicle that is stationary is not being “operated” for purposes of the statute.
The Florida Legislature determined that the law was necessary to improve roadway safety for all vehicle operators, vehicle passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and other road users; to prevent crashes related to the act of text messaging while driving a motor vehicle; and to reduce injuries, deaths, property damage, health care costs, health insurance rates, and automobile insurance rates related to motor vehicle crashes.
The law makes texting while driving a “secondary offense”, which means that a law enforcement officer must witness another offense, such as speeding or careless driving, in order to issue a citation to a driver for texting. Texting while driving cannot be the primary reason for a traffic stop.
Florida Statute §316.305 does contain several exceptions. For example, it is not a violation of the new texting law in Florida, to text and drive:
• In the performance of official duties as an operator of an authorized emergency vehicle, as a law enforcement or fire service professional, or as an emergency medical services professional;
• When reporting an emergency or suspicious criminal activity to law enforcement authorities;
• When receiving messages: related to the navigation of the motor vehicle or related to emergency, traffic, or weather alerts;
• When conducting wireless interpersonal communication that does not require manual entry of multiple letters, numbers, or symbols, except to activate, deactivate, or initiate a feature or function;
• When conducting wireless interpersonal communication that does not require reading text messages, except to activate, deactivate, or initiate a feature or function.
• When operating an “autonomous vehicle”.
In addition, a user’s billing records for a wireless communications device may be admissible as evidence only in the event of a crash resulting in death or personal injury in order to determine whether a violation of the law has been committed.
Any person who violates the Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law commits a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable as a non-moving violation. Any person who commits a second or subsequent violation of the new law within five (5) years after the date of a prior conviction commits a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable as a moving violation.
Many believe that the new law is not strict enough, as it can only be enforced as a secondary offense, creates exceptions for texting at traffic lights, allows people to utilize talk-to-text devices, and carries a penalty that may be as low as $30 plus court costs for a first offense, and $60 for a second offense.