Texting and driving can now get you pulled over. Sheriff says they’ll warn you, for now

Gov. DeSantis hopes newly texting while driving signed bill will make roads safer

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Friday, May 17, 2019 making texting while driving a primary offense in Florida, meaning officers can pull over drivers spotted texting and driving.
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Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Friday, May 17, 2019 making texting while driving a primary offense in Florida, meaning officers can pull over drivers spotted texting and driving.

It was a distracted driving crash in 2015 that changed the lives of Patrick Wanninkhof’s family, and his parents were there Friday when a bill was signed into law that allows law enforcement officers in Florida to pull over and cite drivers who are on their phones.

Rick and Debbie Wanninkhof’s 25-year-old son Patrick was killed when he was struck while on his bicycle in Oklahoma by a driver who they said looked down at a notification on her phone and veered, hitting Patrick and another person.

Friday, Debbie wore a white t-shirt with the words “Save Lives, Don’t Text and Drive” in blue letters across the back and stood in a crowd that included Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan and Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells as Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 107 into law on a warm, sunny Friday morning outside Sarasota High School.

“Something has to be done, it’s way too dangerous,” Rick Wanninkhof said. “As people we are not good at multitasking and we definitely should not try to multitask while driving.”

“Studies have shown texting while driving is one of the worst of all driver distractions and a recent study ranked Florida the second worst state for distracted driving,” DeSantis said.

Texting while driving was already illegal in Florida but the bill, intended to make roadways safer, makes texting while driving a primary offense. This means officers can pull someone over solely if they’re spotted texting behind the wheel, without another traffic infraction, as was previously required. It goes into effect July 1.

“A person may not operate a motor vehicle while manually typing or entering multiple letters, numbers, symbols, or other characters into a wireless communications device or while sending or reading data on such a device for the purpose of nonvoice interpersonal communication, including, but not limited to, communication methods known as texting, e-mailing, and instant messaging,” the bill reads.

The bill also specifies that a device must be hands-free in a school or construction zone.

There are some exceptions, though, such as hands-free operations and GPS use. Texting can be done when the vehicle is not in motion.

Wells said it was difficult to enforce that the law making texting while driving illegal when it was just a secondary offense, and he sees people around him texting while driving constantly.

“It’s upsetting because we know that lives are being lost because of it, and people are not paying attention, and our roads are getting busier and busier every day, and it’s really something that’s preventable,” Wells said.

The bill itself allows for a warning period from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, and Wells said his agency will start with warnings for the first few months.

After Jan. 1, officers can issue citations if they see a driver using a “wireless communication device.” The citations will include three points on the driver’s record. Wells said the fine will likely be similar to that of a moving violation fine or for those for not wearing seatbelts.

“Hopefully through education and compliance, we can reduce the injuries and fatalities that are occurring because of texting and driving. It’s serious, it’s happening every day we all see it and we need to stop doing it,” Wells said.

He urged parents to talked to their young drivers as well as to lead by example by putting their own phones down while driving.

“No call, no post, no selfie, no update, Facebook... It’s not worth a life. It’s not worth taking a chance,” Debbie Wanninkhof said. “We need to set an example for the greater good.”

“I wish I could prevent every accident, but it’s my hope that by taking action to address distracted driving today, that we will be able to make our roads safer and hopefully prevent some of these crashes that we’ve seen, injuries and unfortunately some of the deaths that we’ve seen,” DeSantis said.

Though they hoped for a completely hands-free law, for the Wanninkhof family, the signing of HB107 is a victory for their late son.

“I just hope that within the next several years that we just don’t do it anymore. That it is going to be unacceptable like drunk driving is,” Rick Wanninkhof said.

The Miami Herald contributed to this report.

The city of Tucson, Ariz., created a video to send a message about the potential for tragedy associated with texting while driving.