General Assembly considers ban on hand-held phone use while driving
By Gary D. Robertson
RALEIGH — With smartphones now ever-present, North Carolina lawmakers are revisiting distracted-driving laws. On Tuesday, they advanced a prohibition on hand-held cellphone use they say will reduce accidents and potentially rein in insurance rates.
The House Transportation Committee overwhelmingly backed legislation to bar all motorists from holding wireless devices with their hands or against their body while operating vehicles. Drivers would also not be allowed to text or watch videos.
First-time violators would face $100 fines, growing to $200 with additional penalties on insurance records for repeat offenses.
There would be exceptions for all in emergencies, and adults could use hand-held phones sitting on stands or in drink holders for a call if pressing only one button to start or end it. Drivers under 18 would be barred from using a device except to follow a preset navigation system route.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia now prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cellphones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A new Georgia law began last summer.
North Carolina has had a prohibition on texting or emailing while driving since 2009, and drivers under 18 can’t use mobile phones at all. But backers of the legislation say a stronger ban is needed in light of automobile crashes, deaths and injuries related to distracted driving.
Adults also could no longer make calls or texts while idling at a stoplight, as is currently allowed.
“I tend to not be very excited about regulation, telling people what they can and cannot do,” said Rep. Jon Hardister, a Guilford County Republican and one of nearly four dozen sponsors of the bill. “But liberty has to stop whenever your actions put others in danger, especially when it puts their lives in danger.”
Tammy Garlock’s 17-year-old son died in a 2008 accident in suburban Charlotte that she later learned likely happened as he tried to make a cellphone call. She told House members the current cellphone laws are unenforceable because it’s difficult to prove a violation.
“There are more drivers on the road than ever, and there are more people focused on the road on (their phones) instead of the primary task at hand,” Garlock said. “The only way to enforce a ban on doing things other than talking is to get the phone out of the hand.”
But some lawmakers said there are already laws dealing with reckless or careless driving, and that preventing motorists from holding their device would not eliminate the real distraction.
“The problem is the conversation. Are we as a legislature willing to legislate no phone calls while you’re driving?” asked Rep. Michael Speciale, a Craven County Republican and one of two committee members voting against recommending the bill. “And if we’re not willing to do that, then we’re not going to solve the problem.”
Lobbyists for the state’s independent insurance agents’ association, General Motors and state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey spoke in support of the bill. George Robinson, who represented Causey, said fewer accidents due to the law could result in lower personal injury expenses and insurance costs.
The bipartisan legislation still must go through several more House committees before reaching the floor. It also would have to pass the Senate before heading to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.
Jennifer Smith with the nonprofit group StopDistractions.org said Georgia has seen positive results since the new law took effect there, including a 22 percent drop in phone swiping or typing by motorists, based on telecommunications data. In 13 of 15 other states where the law has been implemented, traffic fatalities fell 16 percent within two years of a ban, according to the Hands Free North Carolina coalition.
In North Carolina, distracted driving contributed to 49,643 crashes in 2012, growing to 54,302 in 2016, while related fatalities increased from 140 to 177 during the same period, according to the state Department of Transportation. While fatalities declined in 2017 to 152, crashes largely stayed flat. DOT said the extent of distracted driving may be greater since the factor is self-reported.
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