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‘Hands Free’ Plan Gets Senate Support

Remnants of a car wreck
News Service of Florida
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Motorists could only use hands-free wireless devices while moving on Florida roads, under a Senate proposal approved Wednesday. 

The Senate Rules Committee voted unanimously to support the proposal (SB 76), which is aimed at preventing texting while driving and other types of distracted driving. The approval came after sponsor Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, changed the bill to include the hands-free requirement, which is supported by traffic-safety advocates to try to get motorists to put down electronic devices.

Simpson said after the meeting he hopes the proposal will find support in upcoming negotiations with the House, which has been reluctant to go to a hands-free requirement.

Simpson compared the evolving issue with seat-belt laws that people questioned when enacted in the 1980s and 1990s.

“There is not anybody that would get in a car today or would put any of their children in a car that would not put a seatbelt around them, or car restraints,” Simpson said. “I think the technology outgrew just seatbelts. And we’ve got computers that we walk around now we call cell phones, and so there is a great opportunity for drivers to be distracted … so I think this is the seatbelt law of our day. I think it will save at least as many, probably more, lives than seatbelts do.”

The House measure (HB 107), which is ready to go to the full House, matches the Senate proposal in shifting texting while driving from a “secondary” offense to a “primary” offense, but it doesn’t impose a hands-free requirement.

Currently, police can only cite motorists for texting behind the wheel if they are pulled over for other reasons. By making it a primary offense, police could pull over motorists for texting while driving.

The House measure would allow drivers to use wireless devices for navigation. Also, the House ban wouldn’t apply when vehicles are stationary.

Debbie Wanninkhof, a Miami-Dade County resident, has been a constant presence in the Capitol pushing for a hands-free law by reminding lawmakers her 25-year-old son Patrick was killed on an Oklahoma highway by a driver using a cellphone. She said “texting is just part of the problem.”

“There is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, posting, reading, scrolling, shopping, selfies, videos, gaming, face-timing, calling. A hands-free law closes the distracted loopholes,” Wanninkhof said.

Last year, the House approved a proposal to make texting while driving a primary offense, but it did not go further amid concerns by senators about issues such as racial profiling.

With Simpson’s changes Wednesday, both proposals would require law-enforcement officers to record the race and ethnicity of people who receive citations for texting while driving.

As part of Simpson’s proposal, county clerks of court would be able to dismiss cases of first-time offenders when violators buy wireless communications devices that can be used hands-free.

Amy Mercer, executive director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, quickly backed the “hands-free” proposal.

“By encouraging drivers to keep both hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, SB 76 will help law enforcement better protect the public we serve,” Mercer said.