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Meet One South Florida Mother Behind The New Law To Prevent Texting While Driving

A banner, bookmarks and bumper stickers warning about the dangers of distracted driving on Debbie Wanninkhof's coffee table.
Sherrilyn Cabrera
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

For the last two years, Key Biscayne resident Debbie Wanninkhof has advocated for stricter texting while driving laws. A new law in the state of Florida will do just that.

The House bill will likely go into effect July 1 and will make texting while driving a primary offense. Under current law it is only a secondary offense, and police officers are not allowed to pull over drivers for texting while driving.

But advocates were pushing for a hands-free law that would prohibit drivers from holding any devices. The new law only requires hands-free drivers in school zones and areas where construction workers are present. 

“This year it didn’t look promising at all, but the powers to be were pushing it behind the scenes,” said Wanninkhof. “We were going hopefully for a hands-free law but that didn’t happen. That definitely is the best answer.”

In July of 2015 Wanninkhof’s son, Patrick Wanninkhof, was riding his bike on a Oklahoma road when a driver on her phone struck and killed him. His riding partner, Bridget Anderson, was also struck and suffered severe injuries. Wanninkhof and Anderson were riding across the country to raise money for Bike and Build, a non profit that raise funds for affordable housing. 

Her son's death launched Wanninkhof on a crusade against distracted driving. 

Wanninkhof met then high school student activist, and now Miami-Dade College alumni, Mark Merwitzer, who has been a lobbyist to ban texting and driving since 2016. He encouraged her to go to Tallahassee and tell her son's story.

Through Merwitzer, she met Keyna Corey, the director of the Florida Don't Text and Drive Coalition.

"She's our liaison between the legislature and the people," said Wanninkhof.

Traveling to and from Tallahassee, Wanninkhof has been outspoken at the legislature about the dangers of distracted driving and pushed for changes.

“Everyone I talk to says it’s so dangerous to be in the car, you look in the car next to you when you’re on I-95 and everybody is on their phone, or most people are on their phone,” said Wanninkhof. “The legislators know this.”

Once the bill is signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state will run a month-long informational campaign about the new law so that Floridians across the state can adjust their driving habits.

Warning tickets will be given for the months that follow, and starting January 1, 2020 fines will begin, ranging from $30-$100.

Councilwoman for the Village of Key Biscayne Katie Petros was inspired by Wanninkhof’s story and decided to join her in travels to Tallahassee, where she said she saw overwhelming support of the bill.

“I was amazed at how many people were supporting it. The Sheriff’s Association is supporting it, the cell phone industry, obviously the municipalities,” said Petros. “The individuals who have been personally impacted, their personal stories are heart-wrenching and they carry a lot of weight.”

To combat concerns of racial profiling and privacy, the bill requires that police officers record the race and ethnicity of offenders and permission is required for a police officer to search through a phone.

Wanninkhof said she would have liked to see more impactful change, like raising the fee of fines and enforcing an all out ban on holding devices while driving. Yet, she said, any step the state can make to prevent distracted driving is a positive change.

“This law, texting while driving … will save lives,” said Debbie Wanninkhof. “It will hopefully change the culture of distracted driving making it unacceptable, just like drunk driving.”

Debbie and Rik Wanninkhof at Arctic Circle, Alaska during Suzette Wanninkhof's (Patrick's sister) tribute 8000 mile to honor Patrick.
Credit Debbie Wanninkhof / Courtesy
The Florida Channel
Debbie and Rik Wanninkhof at Arctic Circle, Alaska during Suzette Wanninkhof's (Patrick's sister) tribute 8000 mile to honor Patrick.

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During her time at Florida International University, where she recently graduated from with a Bachelors in Journalism, Sherrilyn Cabrera interned for the South Florida News Service - a digital journalism platform where stories are written, shot and edited by FIU students. As part of her senior project, she reported on the influx of Puerto Ricans who migrated to Florida after Hurricane Maria, and the impact it could have had on the November 2018 midterm elections.