Louisiana bills advance; drivers’ cell phone use, texting would be restricted

| 6/16/2008

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

One bill focuses on drivers younger than 18. Sponsored by Sen. Don Cravins Jr., D-Opelousas, the measure would prohibit young drivers from using cell phones. At the urging of Cravins, an amendment made in the House Transportation, Highways and Public Safety Committee removed an exception for hands-free devices.

Restrictions would not apply to adults.

A stricter measure was offered by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans. The bill would ban all drivers from using hand-held cell phones.

Cravins’ bill – SB159 – would authorize fines up to $100. Repeat offenders would face up to $250 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 while 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.

Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, is the sponsor of one more bill – SB342 – that 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.

Offenders would face up to $150 fines. They also would face the possibility of serving 16 hours of community service. Repeat offenders would face $500 fines and/or 24 hours of community service.

All four bills would make violations a secondary offense – meaning a person would have to be pulled over for another violation, such as speeding, before they could be ticketed.

Each bill also would make exceptions for emergency calls or sending emergency texts. Of particular interest to truckers, CB radios and other similar devices also would be exempted.

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 states that have bans on all drivers from using hand-held phones. The New Jersey and Washington state laws also prohibit text messaging. Minnesota recently approved its own ban on text messaging.

SB137, SB159 and SB342 are awaiting final consideration on the House floor. HB852 is awaiting a final vote before the full Senate. If approved, the bills must be returned to their original chamber to sign off on changes before moving to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk.

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

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor