Louisiana bills call for restricting drivers’ cell phone use

| 5/1/2008

Driver distractions are receiving a lot of attention this year in the Louisiana Legislature. Multiple bills are drawing consideration at the statehouse that would restrict people from talking on cell phones while behind the wheel.

The Senate has approved a bill that focuses on drivers younger than 18. Sponsored by Sen. Don Cravins Jr., D-Opelousas, the measure would prohibit young drivers from using hand-held phones. Talking on a phone equipped with a hands-free device would still be permitted.

Restrictions would not apply to adults.

House lawmakers have endorsed a more strict measure. Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, is the sponsor of a bill that would ban all drivers from using hand-held cell phones.

Cravins’ bill – SB159 – would authorize fines up to $175. Repeat offenders would face up to $500 fines. The fines would double if cell phone use is determined to be a factor in a wreck.

Badon’s bill – HB852 – would fine first-time offenders as much as $100. Repeat offenders would face up to $150 fines and third offenses would result in up to $200 fines. Subsequent violations would lead to as much as $250 fines.

Both bills include a provision to outlaw text messaging while driving. The provision also is included in a separate bill to prohibit cell phone use by young drivers.

Sponsored by Sen. Julie Quinn, R-Metairie, the measure – SB137 – would make hand-held and hands-free devices off limits for drivers with learner’s permits or intermediate licenses.

Violators would face fines up to $175. Repeat offenders would pay as much as $500. As is the case in Cravins’ bill, wrecks caused from use of the wireless devices would result in double fines.

One more bill – SB342 – would prohibit cell phone use only for first-time drivers who have been licensed for less than a year. People with valid licenses who move to Louisiana from other states would be exempted.

Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livington, said he plans to amend his bill to prohibit text messaging while driving.

The current version would fine offenders up to $150. They also would face the possibility of serving 16 hours of community service. Repeat offenders would face $225 fines and/or 24 hours of community service.

All four bills would make exceptions for emergency calls. Of particular interest to truckers, Badon’s bill would make exceptions for Qualcomm-type devices.

Supporters of limiting driver distractions point to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency contends that “distractions,” such as cell phones, contribute to as many as 30 percent of all traffic wrecks.

However, more studies show that hands-free and hand-held phones are equally distracting. Opponents of cell phone restrictions also say that talking on cell phones is no more distracting than eating, drinking or changing radio stations while driving.

Others say lawmakers shouldn’t be restricting people in their vehicles.

Currently, at least 15 states forbid young drivers to use phones while behind the wheel. California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Washington are the only other states that have bans on all drivers from using hand-held phones. The New Jersey and Washington state laws also prohibit text messaging. Several other states are pursuing similar restrictions.

SB159 is in the House Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee. HB852 is in the Senate Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee. SB137 and SB342 are awaiting final consideration on the Senate floor.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Louisiana in 2008, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor