Law seeks to reduce distracted driving

For now, drivers caught using a hand-held phone while driving through an active construction or school zone, will be issued a warning.

But, at the beginning of the New Year, a citation can be issued with a $164 fine and three points against a driver’s license for the first offense.

The new restriction was included in a law that addressed texting while driving, passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The texting portion of the law took effect July 1. It makes texting while driving a primary offense, and also applies to emailing and browsing on a phone.

Deputy Marc Lane, of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, keeps an eye out for motorists who may be talking on their phones while in an active construction zone on State Road 54. Florida has a new state law, which took effect Oct. 1, that prohibits talking on a hand-held device while driving through active school or construction zones. (Brian Fernandes)

Before July 1, driving while texting was deemed as a secondary offense, meaning that a driver couldn’t be pulled over for it, but could be cited for it, if the driver had been stopped for another offense.

The portion of the law relating to talking on hand-held devices in active construction or school zones took effect on Oct. 1, with a three-month grace period — meaning only warnings will be issued initially.

“The common theme is we want you paying attention to your driving, not your phone,” said Sgt. Dan Fenstemacher, of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

“With everything that’s going on in vehicles, distracted driving is a major problem,” he said.

Tragic consequences can occur when drivers are distracted, said Fenstemacher, who is part of Sheriff’s Office’s Highway Interdiction Team division.

“Bad things can happen when you’re not watching where you’re going. You’re going off the road, you might hit a bicyclist, hit a kid on the sidewalk [or] go head on into a vehicle. We’re not out there to just write tickets, but we want people to drive safe,” he said.

Vehicular accidents due to “electronic communication devices” last year alone resulted in 48 crashes and two fatalities in Pasco County, according to statistics from the Florida Highway Patrol.

Fenstemacher’s team is assigned to patrol main corridors such as State Roads 52, 54 and 56.

Recently, Deputy Marc Lane of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office observed motorists who may have been talking on their phone while driving. He was parked in an unmarked SUV, in a median near an active construction zone. Within about 30 minutes, he pulled over five motorists for speeding or using hand-held devices in the zone and issued them warnings.

The county’s sheriff’s office is working along with the Florida Highway Patrol and local police departments to enforce the new measure.

“Certainly we work collaboratively to try and cut down [on accidents],” Fenstemacher said.

Driving in school zones and construction zones while talking on a hand-held phone is prohibited only when those premises are active with people present.

A school zone is considered to be operational when there are speed limit signs with flashing lights, cross guards, and children crossing the street.

For construction zones, orange, diamond-shaped signs and cones along the road, are signals that work is being done in that area.

It is permissible to use a Bluetooth or an earplug in only one ear in restricted zones, as long as a device is not in the motorist’s hand.

This also can apply to a phone or a tablet.

If a vehicle is not in motion, whether at a stoplight or in congested traffic, texting is not considered an infraction, the Fenstemacher noted.

Signs that a driver is texting on the road may include delayed reaction time, slowing down below the speed limit, swerving outside of a designated lane or periodically taking eyes off the road to look downward, he said.

Published October 23, 2019

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