'Texting while driving' bill gets brake-checked in Florida Legislature

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As time ticks away on this year’s state Legislature session, a "texting while driving" bill remains stuck in traffic.

Head of the Senate Appropriations Committee Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, is to blame after he has reportedly allowed the bill to stall in his committee for more than a month now. But Bradley’s concerns don’t orbit around the typical GOP-roll call. Instead, he’s worried that the bill would allow police to view citizens’ cellphones and that it could lead to more racial profiling.

“Many of my colleagues share that concern,” Bradley told reporters. “I listen to them, and so it’s not just me.”

Although law enforcement can’t pull you over for texting while driving as an offense on its own, in Florida, texting while on the road is already illegal and can result in a ticket and fine – but only if they pull the driver over for a separate reason, such as speeding or expired tags.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, more than 1,400 citations for texting while driving were issued in 2016.

Initially, the bill’s chances of passing looked likely, in part because it was a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and because it passed through the House committees en route to the House floor last week with ease.

Then came the Florida Senate, where the bill passed through three committees like a stick of butter sliding down a hallway. Bradley’s committee – the fourth – has yet to express much interest in its passing.

Bradley isn’t alone in his skepticism. Democratic legislators have also raised concerns, citing a 2014 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, which found that black drivers in the Sunshine State were nearly twice as likely as whites to be stopped for violating the state law requiring motorists to wear seat belts.

Throughout the legislative process, lawmakers have adapted the bill to help quash those concerns. For example: If law enforcement wants to search someone’s phone to check if they were texting on the road, they have to first tell the driver that they have the right to decline the search. From there, if the driver declines, police would need a warrant if they want to search through the phone.

State Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, one of the bill sponsors in the House, has said that none of the other 43 states with similar texting laws has that same provision.

The bill’s language has also been tweaked so that it would require police to track the ethnicity of each driver they pull over for texting.