Almost anywhere in America, a cop can pull you over if you’re texting while driving. But not in Florida.
Here, you can be stopped for a broken taillight or an expired license plate, but you’re free to text and drive unless a police officer has another reason to stop you.
The has refused repeatedly to toughen the law. Despite agreement that texting can be deadly on the road, legislators have bowed to concerns that a stricter law would chip away at drivers’ rights and give police the power to stop drivers unfairly.
State Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, isn’t giving up. Slosberg — whose twin sister died in a car accident — plans to submit a bill in coming days to make texting while driving a primary offense, meaning police wouldn’t need to spot another violation to stop you.
That’s the law in every other state except Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.
If you text while driving, “you are putting other people’s lives at risk,” Slosberg said. “As a government our job is to protect the residents.” Tragedies that result from texting and driving are “preventable,” she said.
There’s no question texting while driving can be dangerous.
In March, a driver lost control of his car while texting and struck and seriously injured a trooper, authorities said.
The trooper, Carlos Rosario, a 12-year FHP veteran, had just stopped his patrol car on the side of the Dolphin Expressway to clock speeders. He was standing beside his car when Hugo Olivares hit the trooper and his cruiser at 35 mph, the Highway Patrol said.
The driver was arrested in May because “during the course of the investigation it was determined that Mr. Olivares was texting prior to the accident,” said FHP Lt. Yosdany Veloz.
Cellphone records show he was “actively engaging in a text-message conversation,” sending his fourth text within seven minutes at the time of the crash, authorities said. Police haven’t specified what he was texting about.
Olivares has pleaded not guilty to reckless driving, court records show.
Some of the pushback to enacting a new Florida law has come from black legislators, who fear it could give police officers a reason to pull over black drivers unfairly — “even though we clearly understand it saves lives,” said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.
Thurston, the head of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, points to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union that showed black drivers in Florida were stopped and given tickets for not wearing seat belts nearly twice as often as whites who drove on the state’s roads in 2014.
And he said he fears making texting while driving a reason to be pulled over could give ammunition to “bad-apple” officers who racially profile.
“You should not text and drive, that’s a no-brainer,” Thurston said. “The problem comes in how the law is applied. [If police are] using it as a pretext to stop them, therein lies the problem.”
He points to a case pending in court: Records show that the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office pulled over a black man in June for not wearing his seat belt. After the deputy asked permission to search the car, he found a gun. The man was charged with possession of a firearm as a convicted felon, records show.
Slosberg, in response to Thurston’s concerns, said her proposed bill would require police agencies “to adopt policies to prohibit the practice of racial profiling in enforcement.”
Slosberg’s efforts at a texting bill failed earlier this year when it didn’t get a hearing in the transportation committee.
In 2014, state Rep. Rick Stark, D-Weston, police to pull over and give drivers $30 fines — the typical penalty for a nonmoving traffic violation — for texting and driving.
Worried it would fail, Slosberg’s father, former Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, also filed a bill that would make texting while driving in a school zone a primary offense, but leave it a secondary in other locations.
Both bills failed, as did Stark’s efforts again in 2016.
Irv Slosberg blames several reasons. He thinks there’s little money supporting road safety. “Lobbyists don’t pass money around for road safety,” he said. “It’s lobbyists who give all the money.”
Road-safety legislation also historically takes time to get approved, he said. He was behind Florida’s 2009 seat belt law, which made it possible for police to pull over drivers specifically for not wearing their seat belts. It took him 14 years to get the law passed.
“You have to take a little bite of the apple,” he said.
“Public safety should be our No. 1 priority. … And that’s not how it is,” he said. “Something is wrong. The leadership in the state of Florida is way out of touch.”
In 2009, then-state Sen. Ted Deutch to enact a statewide ban in Florida.
Four years after becoming a congressman in 2010, he tried to lure Florida to join other states in cracking down on texting and driving, suggesting Florida could become eligible to share federal grant money.
That didn’t work, either. He said the issue now rests again with state lawmakers to join “virtually every other state capital in America.”
“This is common sense. It could help save lives, and Florida should finally act,” Deutch said. “When you tell people Florida is one of the only states in the country. … They don’t understand why the state Legislature won’t take reasonable action to help save lives.”
For Nebraska, Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski proposed a bill this past spring, but it failed. He said he’ll try again. “You’ve got to be patient. Pressure mounts from the public, and they want to be safe.”
Kolowski was opposed by the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, which said the bill would give too much discretion to police officers. He said he’ll study other recent laws to see how lawmakers pulled it off. Iowa made texting while driving a primary offense just last month.
In Florida, Emily Slosberg is picking up where other lawmakers haven’t succeeded. This time, as part of her push to get the new law passed, she is lobbying City Halls, asking them to support her to help it be approved in Tallahassee.
Four counties — Manatee, Calhoun, Franklin and Marion — already signed resolutions of support. Cities that have endorsed her efforts include Delray Beach, .
Traffic safety is important to Slosberg. Her twin sister, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was a passenger in a speeding car, perished in a 1996 crash along with four other teenagers.
“Not wearing your seat belt, you’re putting your own life in jeopardy,” Slosberg said. But texting while driving puts everybody else’s lives at risk, she said.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel supports efforts to try to stop texting behind the wheel. “If left up to me, I think texting while driving should be a primary offense,” he said. “It causes horrific consequences, catastrophic accidents.”
It’s time for change in Florida, said Delray Beach Police Chief Jeff Goldman. “We’ve all seen too many drivers with their phones in their hands not paying attention to the road,” he said. “Distracted driving costs people their lives.”
Staff Writers Ryan Van Velzer and Jayda Hall contributed to this report.
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