The deputy, Donald Hess, didn’t hit his lights and siren right away. He watched over more than a mile while he pulled around both sides of the Jeep, he said, as the driver kept texting before he pulled him over on the I-4 shoulder. When the driver rolled down his window, the deputy waved away a cloud of smoke.
“How much weed have you all been smoking?” the deputy said in dialogue captured on police body camera video. “The reason I stopped you is for you using your texting while you’re driving.” Hess mimicked texting with his left thumb.
That roadside encounter, in November, was the exception rather than the rule when it comes to enforcing a new Florida law against texting and driving. With a flourish, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law in 2019 making texting while driving a primary traffic offense in Florida, with a $30 fine for a first offense that routinely climbs to over $100. “It’ll make our roads safer,” DeSantis said.
But the new law against texting is rarely enforced, according to official state figures. Florida also has failed its requirements under the law to track comprehensively how many drivers are ticketed statewide – and whether police are targeting minorities. Those in charge of writing tickets also complained that the young law has too many loopholes.
Florida’s census of texting violations, published earlier this year, is missing tickets entirely from more than 20 of the state’s 67 sheriff’s departments and at least 56 of 155 municipal police departments. The state sent the official report, anyway, to the governor, Senate president and House speaker. The report also contained at least one major error – discovered after the fact by a news reporter – that overcounted texting tickets by hundreds.
Broward County, one of Florida’s most populated, did not submit any numbers to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, as required annually under the law, until a reporter asked why its figures were missing. It turned out that deputies in Broward, where nearly 2 million people live, ticketed only 18 drivers for texting.
In areas where law enforcement agencies submitted data, the numbers also showed that police aren’t aggressively enforcing the antitexting law.
Last year – the first year when drivers could be ticketed – officers, deputies, troopers and others wrote only 3,410 such citations among Florida’s more than 15 million licensed drivers, according to official state figures. The Florida Highway Patrol accounted for nearly one-third of the tickets.
In a typical year, authorities statewide issued more tickets for carpool lane violations or failing to use turn signals. In 2019, the latest figures available, Florida recorded more than 56,000 crashes and nearly 300 deaths blamed on distracted driving, which includes texting.
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