By TIFFANY REPECKI
New legislation went into effect Tuesday in Florida that prohibits texting while driving.
The Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law mandates that a person "may not operate a motor vehicle while manually typing or entering multiple letters, numbers, symbols, or other characters into a wireless communications device or while sending or reading data on such a device for the purpose of non-voice interpersonal communication," which includes texting, e-mailing and instant messaging.
"It specifically prohibits texting and driving," Sgt. Dana Coston, spokesman for the Cape Coral Police Department, said. "But, it also provides for several instances where a person can use their device."
Some exemptions to the law include emergency personnel who are on duty, when reporting an emergency or criminal activity, to receive texts for emergency related information, like traffic and weather updates and using the device as a mapping system or GPS system, among other things.
"They're trying to be a little more forward thinking," he said.
A secondary violation, motorists cannot be stopped solely for texting and driving.
"For many years, our seat belt law was a secondary offense," Coston said.
For example, if a police officer observed a motorist weaving or operating a vehicle in an unsafe manner, it would be probable cause to conduct a traffic stop. If the motorist is also observed texting while driving, the officer can cite the driver for the primary violation and texting while driving.
It is a $30 fine for a first offense.
On Tuesday, the Cape police reminded people of the new law via social media Web sites.
The department will conduct an educational enforcement of the new law - handing out verbal and written warnings to motorists caught in violation instead of tickets - for at least the next month.
"It's just going to be a matter of slowly educating the public," he said.
The CCPD also recently received a $5,000 grant from the Florida Department of Health's Injury Prevention Program to conduct an informational campaign for the public on the new law.
"Distracted driving is bad, so we're happy that there's something on the books," Coston said.
The openness of the law, however, leaves some gray area.
"It's going to be interesting to see how these cases play out in court," he said.
The new law's effect on future injuries and fatalities due to distracted driving is also unclear.
"I'd love to say this is going to have an immediate measurable impact," Coston said. "I think this is going to be one of those things where we'll have to wait and see."
Some, however, were already predicting Tuesday that the law will have little effect.
"It's the issue of enforceability," Jay Anderson, executive director of Stay Alive ... Just Drive!, said.
"I think law enforcement officers are going to be hesitant to write the citations based on the burden of proof," he said, noting that officers have to make the determination whether drivers were texting. "All I have to do is say I was dialing a phone number."
"I think law enforcement officers are going to be hesitant to write the citations based on the burden of proof," he said, noting that the officer has to make the determination whether the driver was texting or not. "Unfortunately, there's no way to prove it - all I have to do is say I was dialing a phone number."
A non-moving violation with a small fine, Anderson said most people will likely just pay the fine.
"My advice to law enforcement right now is issue them the citation," he said.
Anderson explained that for drivers wanting to contest the citation in court, they should be required to bring in proof via cell phone records or such that they were not on the phone or texting at the time.
About 10 states have banned the use of cell phones all together, unless used with a hands-free device.
"This thing has no teeth," he said of the new Florida law.
"It's taken six years to get this watered down legislation," Anderson added.
He, however, referred to the legislation as "baby steps."
"I think the thing most disappointing is it doesn't allow law enforcement to do their job," Anderson said.
Stay Alive ... Just Drive! is a crash prevention, education and awareness program aimed at promoting safe driving and curbing distracted driving. For more information, visit online at: www.sajd.org.