New state law ban divers from texting while driving or from using their phone by hand in a school zone or work zone.
The grace period ended Jan. 1 for new state laws banning people from texting while driving and from using their phones by hand in a work zone or school zone, and Flagler County deputies are pulling people over.
"If you have to text somebody, you have to pull over in a safe location. ... It's dangerous to text and drive, and we’re going be out there actively looking for violations."
— SCOTT VEDDER, Flagler County Sheriff's Office Traffic Unit corporal
Flagler County Sheriff’s Office deputies had issued seven warnings and two citations between Jan. 1 and Jan. 7, said Cmdr. Gerald Ditolla, of the FCSO’s Traffic Unit.
The Florida Highway Patrol issued 1,087 warnings for texting while driving during the grace period, from July 1 through Dec. 30.
Of the two crimes — texting while driving, or manually using a device in a school zone or work zone — it’s easier for law enforcement officers to catch people violating the latter crime.
“That one’s cut and dry,” Ditolla said. He explained that just seeing someone holding their phone is enough to justify a citation under Florida Statutes Section 316.306, the law banning drivers from using a wireless device by hand in a school crossing, school zone or active work zone.
But with the law that bans texting while driving, Section 316.305, enforcement is a bit trickier. According to the text of the law, law enforcement officers may not search a driver’s phone without a warrant, and they must notify drivers that drivers have the right to refuse to consent to a search.
So when a deputy sees a person on their phone but doesn’t actually see them texting, and the person insists that they were using their phone for a use that was not texting and is not illegal — for instance, using a music app or navigation app — the deputy has limited options.
“If you see somebody that’s on their phone ... you have to ask them if they were texting, and also ask them to look at their phone, and also advise them that they do not have to allow you,” said Traffic Unit Cpl. Scott Vedder. “... Nine times out of 10, they’re not going admit that.”
That’s the case unless the deputy actually sees the person entering text into a phone — as can sometimes happen when the deputy is driving right next to the texter, particularly if the deputy is riding a motorcycle and has a clear view down into the car. In those cases, deputies can write a citation based on their observation of the crime.
Deputies have given out a lot of verbal warnings on Palm Coast Parkway, Ditolla said.
“We think that a lot of times, distracted driving is the cause of our crashes,” Ditolla said.
For the 2019 calendar year, Ditolla said, the FCSO and the Florida Highway Patrol worked about 2,200 crashes in Flagler County, and 776 of those were coded as distracted driving — a category that included instances in which drivers’ attention was diverted by their phone or by other distractions, such as adjusting a radio station or speaking to children in the backseat.
Even when deputies can’t actually issue a citation, there’s value in letting drivers know deputies are looking for distracted drivers, Vedder said.
“If you have to text somebody, you have to pull over in a safe location,” Vedder said. “We want to get it out to people that it’s important, and it’s dangerous to text and drive, and we’re going be out there actively looking for violations.”