Police can now pull drivers over in Florida if they spot someone texting behind the wheel.
The strengthened texting while driving ban went into effect Monday and brings fines with it. Previously, texting while driving was only enforced as a secondary offense, which meant drivers were only cited if they were stopped for other infractions.
Under the law that went into effect on July 1, the fine is $30 for a first-time offense, not including additional court costs or other fees. First time offenders will not have any points assessed against their license.
Second time offenders face a $60 fine, not including additional court costs or other fees. Three points will be assessed against the driver license of anyone caught texting a second time.
Email and other text-based communications such as instant messaging are also prohibited.
“Drivers who text and drive are eight times more likely to be involved in a crash,” said Matt Nasworthy, Florida Public Affairs Director, AAA – The Auto Club Group.
However, there are exceptions to entering text-based data into a phone, such as “using a device or system for navigation purposes,” according to Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) in an email to WJCT News.
The second part of the law goes into effect on October 1. It requires phones to be used in a hands-free manner when driving in a designated school, crossing, school zone or active work zone area. That means talking while holding a phone will no longer be allowed in those areas.
An education campaign will run through January 1. Warnings, instead of citations and fines, will be issued in most cases until the new year.
"Obviously, there are some exceptions. If there was a crash involved with bodily injury, or unfortunately a fatality, if that were to occur, that would be something different. And we would certainly issue a citation for that," said Florida Highway Patrol Captain Thomas Pikul.
Hands-free communication, which is provided in many newer cars, is still permitted.
“Using a wireless communications device hands-free or hands-free in voice-operated mode, including, but not limited to, a factory-installed or after-market Bluetooth device,” is among the exceptions to the law, according to the FLHSMV website.
Some vehicle infotainment systems allow text messages to be read to drivers, while also allowing drivers to use voice commands to make phone calls or enter a GPS navigation route.
Pikul stressed that although hands-free communication is still legal, it's important to keep the focus on driving and avoid distractions.
"Certainly those systems make answering the call and being able to talk on the phone a little bit easier. But again, it's taking that cognitive ability away when you're driving the vehicle. Again, it's a distraction, even talking on the phone, because your mind not might not be on what's right in front of you, which is the road and the passengers in your vehicle you and the other people on the roadway," said Pikul, adding, "any distraction is a dangerous distraction."
For those that choose to continue to use smartphones in the car, Bluetooth devices that allow for varying degrees of hands-free communication are available in a wide variety of configurations for older cars. A check of Amazon.com shows some are available for less than $25.
Aftermarket head units are also available for many cars that include hands-free communications features such as voice recognition, Android Auto and Apple Car Play.