SEBRING - A statewide ban on texting while driving goes into effect today, making it a secondary offense to read or send a text, email or instant message on a smartphone while driving.
That means police have to first stop drivers for another offense like an illegal turn. Florida's seat belt law also began as a secondary offense but is now a primary offense.
"Being that several deaths have been attributed to texting while driving, it is a law that is long overdo," said Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler.
Lake Placid police officers will be "strongly enforcing the new statute beginning tomorrow," he said in an email Monday.
Even though legislators decided to make texting while driving a secondary offense, Fansler said, it "does not really concern us since drivers who are texting usually exhibit several driving infractions such as swerving, failure to maintain a single lane, and impeding the flow of other motorists."
Highlands County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Mark Schrader also described the new statute as a "needed law."
He said while sheriff's deputies will not be specifically looking for drivers who are texting while they are driving, they will start enforcing the statute from today and it is up to the deputies' discretion whether to first give warnings for a certain period of time or citations. School resource officers also will be watching students as they drive to or from school campuses, he added.
Fansler said: "As for the enforcement impact, anytime a new law in placed into effect, LPPD officers tend to educate before enforcing. Our officers will issue warnings for the first few weeks. Once the word circulates, enforcement will begin."
Sebring Police Cmdr. Steve Carr said officers were given a copy of the new law.
In some cases, officers can see that a person is texting, in that they have the cell phone in view and from how they are moving their hands.
People also may be holding the steering wheel with one hand and using the other to text, he said.
Carr said that if the person denies texting, the cell phone texting records could be subpoenaed, but he doesn't expect that to happen very often, unless an accident is involved.
It took five tries before Florida lawmakers finally passed the texting ban. Previous efforts stalled in the face of House Republican opposition, with conservative members worried about government intrusion into people's lives.
The House added a provision allowing police to use drivers' mobile phone records against them only when texting causes a crash resulting in death or personal injury. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has said that could help to defend the law against privacy concerns.
Drivers who text take their eyes off the road for almost five seconds, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry. At 55 mph, a driver can cross the equivalent of a football field while not looking.
There were 256,443 reported crashes in Florida in 2012. In 4,841 of those crashes, a driver had been texting or otherwise using an "electronic communication device" while driving, according to a preliminary report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The ban covers tablet computers as well as mobile phones, but excludes using a talk-to-text feature. It also allows texting while stopped at a red light.
The bill allows the use of phone records in defense against a ticket, but some phone companies' records don't differentiate between manual texting and talk-to-text messaging.
A first violation is a $30 fine plus court costs. A second or subsequent violation within five years adds three points to the driver's license and carries a $60 fine.
"Too many needless deaths are occurring because of vehicle crashes caused by distracted driving," said Amy Stracke, managing director of AAA Traffic Safety Advocacy, The Auto Club Group, who applauded the new law.
The Florida Department of Transportation and AAA are partnering to educate the public about the new law.
Here are some safety tips they shared:
Put the cell phone away or silence it while driving so you are not tempted to respond while in motion.
Download an app that disables the device while in motion.
Designate a non-driving texter to respond for you.
The Tampa Tribune and Associated Press contributed to this report