TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- As of Monday, texting and driving is a primary offense in Florida. Officers can cite drivers if they see them texting behind the wheel, without the need for another violation.
When the bill was in the legislature, some lawmakers wanted something much stricter. No handheld phone use, no matter where you’re driving. Florida got a compromise in the end— a primary offense and hands-free requirements coming in October, but only in school and work zones.
It’s not what Tallahassee Father Demetrius Branca wanted to see.
“Frustrated,” Branca said. “Frustrated is the first word that comes up.”
Branca has been pushing for a policy that would make it illegal to use a mobile device with your hands while driving on any of Florida’s roads. His frustration with the new law follows the death of his 19-year-old son Anthony Branca, killed about five years ago by a distracted driver.
In the years since, Branca has used the death to push lawmakers to curtail texting behind the wheel. This new policy— he feels— won’t change much.
“I don’t understand what it’s going to take,” Branca said. “Maybe it’s going to take one of them losing someone they love to something this stupid.”
With the hands-free portion of the law being limited, advocacy groups and others think law enforcement’s ability to pull someone over for what looks like texting isn’t enough. Drivers can sometimes get out of tickets by saying they were using GPSs, and penalties aren’t all that stiff. A first offense is a non-moving violation with a base fine of $30. The second, within five years— a moving violation costing $60 and three points on your license.
A majority of states have primary offense laws, but they don’t seem to be impacting crash rates much, nationally. Federal data from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows for the last three years, 2015-2017, fatal crashes involving cellphones remained between 450 and 400.
The stats echo what’s happening in Iowa. There, texting and driving has been a primary offense since 2017. With distracted crashes down only slightly, officers are now pushing for a total hands-free policy on roads.
“There are 17 or 18 states that are hands-free— but until you get this out of people’s hands, I don’t think you’re going to see a big change,” said Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Nathan Ludwig, referencing his cellphone. “It seems no matter where you go in the city or the county blacktop, everyone has got this in their hand, texting.”
Branca felt the same. He planned be back in front of Florida’s lawmakers, pushing to expand the state’s hands-free policy, during the next legislative session.
“Our kids shouldn’t be dying for text messages,” Branca said. “If I were in charge, I’d be fighting tooth and nail every single day.”