The local word on texting ban

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Thursday, May 30, 2013

SUN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION Local authorities are trying to educate the public on a  new law will go into effect October 1, which puts a state-wide ban on texting while driving.
Local authorities are trying to educate the public on a new law will go into effect October 1, which puts a state-wide ban on texting while driving.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Brandon Staack, 24, uses his smartphone for everything. When he’s not texting, his GPS helps him find his way around town, and he often sorts through his extensive iTunes music selection at the same time.

‘I’m usually just trying to decide what I want to listen to, but then my wife yells at me for not paying attention to the road,’ he said.

Staack knows it’s not a good idea to multitask while he’s driving, but with all that technology at his fingertips, it’s hard to resist.

‘Sometimes I’ll be texting and I won’t remember the length of road I just traveled,’ he admitted. ‘I think I’m being careful and I try to look up every few seconds, but the reality is when you are texting, you are focused more on your phone than you are on whatever else you are doing.’

On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a statewide ban on texting while driving, which will go into effect Oct. 1.

The law makes it a secondary offense to read or send a text, email or instant message on an electronic device while a vehicle is in motion. That means law enforcement officers will have to first pull a driver over for another offense, like swerving or not wearing a seat belt, before the officer can issue a ticket.

‘Having it as a secondary offense puts police officers in an unfair position,’ said Punta Gorda Police Chief Albert ‘Butch’ Arenal. ‘Even if it’s completely evident that a driver is texting and not paying attention, my officers are going to have to look for a pretextual reason to pull them over.’

The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said the bill is comparable with the seatbelt law, which began as a secondary offense but is now a primary offense.

‘We just want to change people’s behavior,’ she said. ‘It worked with the seatbelt law, now we are hoping it works for texting.’

Critics anticipate that officers will have a tough time determining whether a person is reading a text or just using GPS to find an address.

‘If your phone is in your hand and your head is down, then police have every right to assume you were texting,’ Detert said.

However, Detert pointed out the House added a provision to the bill that prevents the access of phone records without a search warrant unless the driver’s offense results in a crash or personal injury.

‘If someone wanted to fight a ticket, they could just bring their phone records to court to prove that they weren’t texting,’ she said.

Arenal isn’t discouraged by the search warrant provision.

‘I think it was the right decision because there is so much personal information stored in phones these days,’ he said, adding that if a law enforcement agency establishes probable cause it can legally retrieve phone records. ‘The good thing is that the justice system is keeping up with criminal technology, and now they have the ability to deliver search warrants electronically.’

Both the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office and the Punta Gorda Police Department anticipate a lot of promotion before the bill takes effect in October.

‘Right now, we are going to be focusing on educating the public about this new law,’ said Debbie Bowe, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office. ‘During that period, we will also be determining enforcement practices.’

Despite the efforts of lawmakers and authorities, Staack doesn’t think drivers will text any less.

‘It won’t change anything,’ he said. ‘Instead of people becoming more aware of the dangers of texting, they will instead become more aware of who is watching. It’s like when you see a patrol car in your rearview and you hurry up and put on your seat belt.’

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