To combat distracted driving and generally improve road safety in the state, a new Florida cell phone law took effect on July 1, 2019. If you operate a motor vehicle in the state, you need to know what this new law requires, how it differs from the previous law, and the penalties motorists face for violating it.
What is the New Florida Cell Phone Law?
Passed by the Florida legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 17, 2019, this new law makes it a primary offense for a person to, "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 nonvoice interpersonal communication, including, but not limited to, communication methods known as texting, emailing, and instant messaging."
The bottom line is texting while driving is against the law in Florida. Also, you must use hands-free devices when driving in certain designated areas, including construction zones.
How the Old and New Texting Laws Differ
If you're thinking the 2013 Florida law prohibited texting and driving, you're right. But under the 2013 law, texting and driving was a secondary offense. Police could issue citations to texting drivers only if they were pulled over for a primary offense first, such as running a stop sign or not wearing a seat belt. The new law makes texting while operating a motor vehicle a primary offense instead of a secondary one. Now, law enforcement officers can pull over motorists who are texting while driving or are using a handheld cell phone in designated areas, which are school zones, work zones, and school crossings. Police officers don't need an independent moving violation as a reason to stop you.
Why Florida Changed its Cell Phone Use Law
The Florida House, Senate and governor were among those who felt the state needed a stronger law to reduce accidents and save lives. Gov. DeSantis said Florida had almost 50,000 accidents due to distracted driving in 2016, resulting in 233 deaths. State Representative Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa) sponsored HB 107 in the Florida House and praised House and Senate colleagues for passing the legislation to curb the epidemic of distracted driving.
American Property Casualty Insurance Association Regional Manager Logan McFaddin said Florida is among the eight states that experienced a rise of almost 6% in fatalities last year, 2018. Driver behavior is a primary reason for car crash deaths, notes McFaddin, a member of the FL DNT TXTNDRV COALITION, which supported the texting and driving ban. The coalition includes law enforcement organizations, businesses, and industries that believe these changes in the state's cell phone use law will protect the public and lower health and auto insurance costs.
Florida is the nation's 45th state to make texting while driving a primary traffic offense. In Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, and Ohio, the violation remains a secondary traffic offense for all drivers texting. Montana is the only state with no cell phone use restrictions as of May 29, 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Penalties for Violating the 2019 Florida Cell Phone Law
Although the new law took effect July 1, 2019, the Florida Senate and House built-in time for motorists to adjust. The ban on handheld use in school and work zones can be enforced with warnings starting Oct. 1, 2019, until Jan. 1, 2020, when fines can be imposed. Law enforcement officers will issue only verbal or written warnings to violators between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019. If you break the law on or after Jan. 1, 2020, a police officer can issue a citation. But no matter how many warnings you get for texting while driving, they'll never count against your driving record.
The penalty for an infraction is a three-point assessment against your driver's license. On a first offense, you can opt to complete a wireless communications device driving safety program, and a court clerk will waive the points and costs. County clerks are authorized to dismiss cases of first-time offenders if the drivers show the court proof of purchasing wireless communications equipment that allows hands-free use of their devices.
Financial penalties are the same as they were under the 2013 law. As a noncriminal traffic infraction, it carries a base fine of $30 plus court costs and fees for a first violation. If you're cited with a second violation within five years after that, it's a moving violation. In that case, your base fine is $60 plus court costs and fees.
Exceptions to the New Driving Law
The new driving ban on cellphone use in Florida is not absolute. Law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical personnel are exempt. If you're reporting criminal activity or an emergency to the police, you can use a handheld cell phone. When you need to receive messages for navigating or operating your vehicle, or safety alerts such as weather or traffic emergency information, the distracted driving ban doesn't apply.
Other Things Florida Drivers Should Know
This new driving law does not apply to stationary vehicles, so if you're behind the wheel but parked or sitting at a stop sign, you can't be guilty of a violation. As it is with the seat belt law, police have to see you driving and texting. If you get pulled over, officers can't make you show or give up your cell phone unless they have warrants, which are hard to get during traffic stops.
To protect drivers against racial profiling in traffic stops, law enforcement officers issuing citations for infractions must record the violator's race and ethnicity. Each law enforcement department must maintain and report the information to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Departments must report their collected data to the Governor, the Senate President, and the House Speaker annually, beginning Feb. 1, 2020.
As a motorist, the new Florida cell phone law may cause you to invest in hands-free devices for making phone calls. You might have to wait until you can find a place to park before sending a text or answering an email. But when you look at the dangers and costs of distracted driving, it's a small price to pay.