New Law: Hands off Cellphones Near Schools, Construction

Oct 2, 2019

Credit U.S. Federal Highway Administration

If you’re driving near a school or construction zone in Florida, keep your hands off that cellphone to comply with a new law that took effect on Tuesday.

“Cars and pedestrians don’t always mix well; so we want to make sure that we eliminate the distractions in those areas, where there’s a higher vulnerability or higher risk to the people and the children who are moving about,” said Lt. Robert Cannon of the Florida Highway Patrol.

You are allowed to answer the phone in a school or construction zone, by tapping the phone but not physically picking it up.

“You have to be using your phone is a hands-free mode – like on a Bluetooth device or an ear bud or something like that,” Cannon said. “There are a few outlying exceptions to that; if you had a bona fide emergency and you needed to call 911, you could do that. You can also pull off to the shoulder in that construction zone or that school zone [and] stop your car if you need to make a phone call.”

If you have a hands-free device, you also must have at least one ear without an ear bud in it. Why school zones and construction sites? Those locations are more likely to expose students and workers to close-by traffic.

“It is a problem,” said Cannon. “Last year there were 52,000 crashes in Florida, in which distracted driving was a contributor. If I can frame that for you, there were a little over 400,000 crashes per year in the state of Florida; 52,000 means 1,000 crashes statewide a week.”

Out of those 52,000 crashes that listed distracted driving as a contributing cause, there were 233 fatalities and about 3,000 people with serious bodily injuries.

But the new law didn't ban all hand-held uses of phones while driving outside of school zones and construction sites, including scrolling through news feeds or holding a phone to an ear.

Earlier this year, Florida outlawed texting while behind the wheel, one of 48 states to do so. But the National Conference of State Legislatures says only 20 states prohibit all hand-held use of cellphones while driving.

“I think It’s one more opportunity to try to avoid distracted drivers; it is an epidemic across the country,” said Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas – one of many educators who are applauding passage of the new law.

“We see- daily where drivers will run into a school bus; usually, the back end of a school bus,” Thomas said. “And most of the time it’s because of distractions – whether you’re bending over touching a radio dial, or playing with a phone.”

Distracted and otherwise careless drivers, contends Thomas, are a major problem around Escambia County schools.

“We have drivers that will run an extended arm on a [school] bus; we have drivers that will run into the back [or] the side of a bus – that’s a fairly regular occurrence, [and] more regular than I want it to be,” said Thomas. “Now I can’t say that all of those are related to a cellphone, but a good number of them are distractions like that.”

State troopers can now begin pulling over motorists who violate the texting law to issue warnings. Lt. Robert Cannon at FHP says they begin issuing tickets for cellphone use in the designated zones on January 1st after a three month “educational” period.

“Your first offense you’re looking at a non-moving violation, which has a base fine of $30,” said Cannon. “The legislature also allows your clerk of the court to set a fee [that] essentially you’re paying along with the ticket. And that can get fairly expensive as well. So in some cases that administrative court fee is as much or more than the base fines set by the state.”

Many agencies in Florida began issuing the $30, first-offense citation in July. A second offense begins at $60. The law that went into effect Tuesday is a stripped-down version of the initial proposed — which was a ban on all hand-held use of phones while driving.