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It’s dumb. It’s against law. But few get a ticket


Three months after Florida passed its new law allowing police to stop motorists for texting while driving, you’ll still see dozens of drivers taking their eyes off the road to tap out messages on their mobile phones.

That’s not likely to change.

Since the new statute went into effect July 1, local law enforcement agencies had written only nine texting-and-driving citations as of Sept. 27 – eight by the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office and one by the Sebastian Police Department, which also had issued six warnings.

The Vero Beach Police Department had issued only one warning. Neither the Indian River Shores Public Safety Department nor the Fellsmere Police Department had stopped even one motorist for texting and driving.

That’s not even one citation a week in Indian River County.

The reason for so few stops, local law enforcement officials say, is that the language of the law makes it difficult to enforce.

“The way it’s written, the statute is still pretty specific, and that presents challenges for us,” Vero Beach Police Lt. Matt Monaco said. “Even if we observe drivers manually entering digits, letters or symbols, they’re allowed to use their phones as GPS devices.”

Another challenge: Motorists stopped for texting and driving aren’t required to show police their phones, making it impossible for officers to confirm at the scene that an offense occurred.

Motorists can text when their vehicles are running but not in motion at traffic lights. However, police may cite them for impeding the flow of traffic if drivers fail to promptly resume motion when the light turns green because they were distracted by their phones.

The law also allows motorists to hold their phones in their hands to talk while driving, though they may not do so if they’re traveling through a school zone or a work zone when workers are present.

“It’s great that the Legislature made texting and driving a primary offense, which is another step towards solving the problem [of accidents caused by drivers distracted by texting],” Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers said. “We’ve issued a few citations, and I’m sure we’ve made a bunch of other stops that resulted in warnings.

“Several states have passed hands-free-only laws, and I’d like to see Florida go in that direction, but that could be a while because people would need to acquire the upgraded technology to do it,” he added. “Legislation could force that to happen, but, right now, there doesn’t seem to be the political will.

“It would be a shame if it takes a tragedy to make it happen.”

In the meantime, a second part of the state law went into effect on Tuesday authorizing law enforcement officers to ticket anyone holding and using a cellphone even for talking while traveling in a school zone or construction zone.

Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry said he believes this is a step toward allowing only hands-free phone use by drivers, but he quickly added he did not believe passing such legislation “is going to be a priority in Tallahassee this year.”

Monaco also foresees hands-free-only becoming the law, which he said eliminates any gray area and “would make it easier to enforce.”

But until then, don’t expect to see much of a decrease in texting and driving on local roadways.

As Indian River Shores Police Chief Rich Rosell put it: “Unless the driver is noticeably distracted or it causes an accident, you’re probably not going to see a lot of citations issued.”