House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s support is significant because it makes the legislation much more viable during the session that begins Jan. 9. (AP photo)

By Lloyd Dunkelberger News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Texting while driving would become a primary traffic offense under legislation unveiled Wednesday and backed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The measure would allow law-enforcement officers to pull over motorists if they see them texting or emailing. Currently, texting while driving is a secondary offense, meaning officers can only charge motorists with texting violations during traffic stops for other offenses, such as speeding.

Corcoran’s support is significant because it makes the legislation much more viable during the session that begins Jan. 9, after similar proposals failed to make it through the Legislature in past sessions.

In an interview, he said as the father of six children, including two teens who have driver licenses, he has become convinced by statistics showing the dangers of texting while driving, particularly for younger drivers.

“The statistics have just become overwhelming,” said Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. “This has reached a national crisis.”

The state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported nearly 50,000 distracted driving crashes in Florida in 2016, including 233 deaths.

“You see the under-30 population are the greatest violators of engaging in texting and driving behavior,” Corcoran said. “All of us have driven down the road and looked over to the car next to us and watched them fully engaged in email or texting. It has reached an epidemic.”

The new House bill will be a variation of legislation already filed in the House (HB 121) by Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and a Senate measure (SB 90), sponsored by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville.

The new bill is co-sponsored by Slosberg, who was injured in a 1996 crash that killed her twin sister along with four other teenagers, and Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa.

Under the bill, first-time violators would face a $30 fine, plus court costs for a non-moving violation. Second-time offenders would face a $60 fine, plus court costs with a moving violation.

The bill would include additional penalties for texting violations for motorists involved in crashes and while driving through school zones, Corcoran said.

“Really what is at issue is trying to keep our families as safe as possible on the road,” he said.

While making it easier for law enforcement officers to pull over motorists for texting, Corcoran said the bill would still protect civil liberties.

Motorists would not have to turn over their phones until warrants are issued. And motorists could not be detained while authorities seek warrants.

Officers would “have to witness the event, issue the ticket, and then that person is entitled to their day in court,” Corcoran said.

At least 39 states make texting while driving a primary traffic offense.

Asked about an American Civil Liberties Union study this year that found African-Americans were nearly twice as likely as whites to be stopped for seat-belt violations, based on 2014 data, Corcoran said those concerns will be considered as the texting legislation is debated.

But he also noted state law already has prohibitions against racial profiling to try to protect minority motorists.