Last year, Palm Beach County had 2,509 distracted driving crashes, the fifth-highest in the state. One hundred thirty-four of those crashes resulted in serious injuries and three were fatal.
(TNS) — Texting while driving is now a primary offense in Florida, meaning law enforcement officers can pull over offending drivers beginning Monday.
A law enforcement officer will have probable cause to pull over a driver if the vehicle is in motion and the driver is seen with a wireless communication device in his or her hand, touching the screen or clearly distracted with his or her head down, said Ted Gonzales, executive director of the Palm Beach County Association of Chiefs of Police.
A wireless communication device can be a cell phone, tablet, gaming device, laptop or anything used to "receive or transmit text or character-based messages," according to the law.
But the driver legally does not have to hand over their communication device to law enforcement, and the officer must notify the driver of this right to decline a search of this device. An officer cannot take the device without a warrant, confiscate the device until a warrant is issued or get the driver's consent to search "through coercion or other improper methods," the law states.
So how will officers be cracking down on distracted drivers?
"Deputies will be watchful and observant," said Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Teri Barbera.
The law does not apply to drivers who are operating an emergency vehicle; reporting an emergency or criminal activity; receiving safety information related to traffic, emergencies or weather; using a device for navigation; or conducting hands-free communication that also does not require reading of these messages.
Drivers who text at a stoplight aren't technically breaking this law, but Gonzales said while rare it could constitute as distracted driving if the driver is delayed at a green light because they are staring down at the phone rather than watching the traffic signal. Only 173 non-moving violations for texting and driving were issued last year in Palm Beach County, out of 209,406 total violations, according to the Florida Uniform Traffic Citation Statistics.
Law enforcement officers will give out warnings until January, as an educational grace period. After that, the first offense comes with a $30 fine, without court fees, and the second offense within five years will be a $60 fine and three points on the driver's license.
The second part of the new texting and driving law prohibits a driver from using a wireless communication device in school and work zones. But that portion of the law doesn't go into effect until Oct. 1. Warnings will be given until the end of the year, and then each violation of that part of the law after Jan. 1 will be a $60 fine and three points on the driver's license.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law in Sarasota on May 17.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is promoting a "Put It Down: Focus on Driving" campaign, in partnership with the Florida Department of Transportation and Florida Highway Patrol, to raise awareness.
Last year, Palm Beach County had 2,509 distracted driving crashes, the fifth-highest in Florida. One hundred thirty-four of those crashes resulted in serious injuries and three were fatal.
"We anticipate a significant reduction in vehicle crashes based on this law," Gonzales said.
©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.