TAMPA — It's time to quit typing and drive.
Florida's new ban on texting while driving takes effect Tuesday, tagging violators with a $30 first-offense fine. And while texting while behind the wheel has become ubiquitious, some of the worst offenders tend to be new drivers, which is where the educational efforts about the new law are being concentrated.
Hillsborough County schools spokeswoman Tanya Arja said the district's educational campaign includes input from AAA, the state Department of Transportation, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department. The campaign is entitled “Put It Down.”
T-shirts will be distributed next week warning teen drivers about the dangers of texting on the road. Similar announcements will be made at all of the county's high schools.
The campaign tells students: “The law is here,” Arja said. “You shouldn't have been doing it in the first place and now it's illegal.”
Pinellas County schools also are busy educating students on the dangers of texting and driving, said Melanie Marquez Parra, spokeswoman for the district.
“It's important for all students to be aware that this law is in effect,” she said. “This is a part we can play to help them be safe.”
The campaign utilizes school websites and newsletters, morning announcement programs and school marquees.
Administrators also are producing a 30-second public service announcement that will be posted on the district's website.
“We're also putting up signs at the exits of all the high schools and vocational centers,” Marquez Parra said.
The texting ban, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May, covers tablet computers as well as mobile phones, but exempts drivers using talk-to-text technology. A subsequent violation within five years adds three points to the driver's license and carries a $60 fine.
The law allows drivers to text while stopped at a red light.
Florida became the 41st state to adopt a texting-while-driving ban since Connecticut passed the first such law in 2006. Other states adopted similar laws in a flurry of legislation occurring since 2009.
Texting behind the wheel of a moving car in Florida will be a secondary offense, meaning a driver can't read or send a text while driving, but law enforcement officers can't stop texters if that's all they're doing wrong. Police must have another reason to conduct a traffic stop.
Seatbelt laws in Florida started out the same way, but now, an unfastened seatbelt is a primary offense and police can issue seatbelt tickets without having another reason to pull a vehicle over.
Of the 41 states that have outlawed texting while driving, 37 have made it a primary offense, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
In Connecticut, a recent survey by an insurance carrier said most drivers who text on the go got sneakier about it once the law passed.
Plymouth Rock Assurance, an automobile insurance carrier that serves vehicle owners in New England, conducted the Connecticut Distracted Driving Study to measure the awareness of and response to the state's distracted driving laws. “While the majority (89 percent) knew that texting while driving is prohibited,” the survey said, “less than 20 percent of people who admitted to texting while driving were willing to stop.”
Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Ernie Bertothy said the state recently tightened the law making it an offense to text even while the car is stopped, like at a red light.
Plenty of motorists in Connecticut have paid the price for texting behind the wheel.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Connecticut law enforcement officers have handed out 117,000 cell phone and distracted driving citations since the law went into effect.
Whether Florida drivers will continue to text and drive remains to be seen in spite of the safety arguments like the warning from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that drivers who text avert their eyes from the road for almost five seconds. At 55 mph, a driver can cross the equivalent of a football field without looking up while sending or reading a text.
Additionally, a Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles report said that of the 256,443 reported traffic crashes in Florida last year, nearly 5,000 involved drivers who were texting or using some sort of “electronic communication device.”
Safety concerns notwithstanding, getting Sunshine State lawmakers to pass the texting law took some time.
The Florida Legislature had debated the law for four years. Each time, the proposal fell to the opposition of House Republicans, whose conservative members voiced concerns about government intrusion into people's lives.
As a concession this year, the House added a provision that allows police to use drivers' mobile phone records against them only when texting causes a fatal crash.