Cell phone use, seat belts are the focus of efforts in Arkansas

| 1/22/2007

A bill has been added to the list of efforts in the Arkansas Senate to curb cell phone use by drivers. Another safety-related effort that would allow for stricter seat-belt enforcement also could code before lawmakers.

State Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, introduced two bills early this month that are intended to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving – for all drivers. Talking on a phone equipped with a "hands-free" accessory would still be permitted.

Hendren has since added another bill – SB19 – that focuses solely on cell phone use of novice drivers. The effort targeting drivers under age 18 would prohibit use of any mobile device while behind the wheel.

Another bill – SB6 – would require drivers of all ages to possess a hands-free device in their vehicles when using a cell phone. The second bill – SB7 – would require drivers to use a hands-free device when talking on the cell phone.

Young drivers stopped for another offense who are found to be in violation of the proposed rule would get off with a warning. Repeat offenders would face $50 fines.

All three bills allow for drivers stopped for another offense who are found to be in violation of the proposed rules to get off with a citation as a warning for the first offense. Additional offenses could net offenders fines up to $50.

The bills include exemptions for emergency calls.

Currently, 13 states forbid young drivers to use phones while behind the wheel. Only Connecticut, New York and New Jersey have bans on all drivers from using hand-held phones. In 2008, California is slated to implement their own rule that will prohibit all drivers from talking on hand-held phones while driving.

Supporters of cell phone restrictions point to research such as a AAA report that estimates drivers distracted by using electronic devices cause as many as 50 percent of the six million crashes reported annually in the U.S., the Pine Bluff Commercial reported.

Another safety-related effort that could draw consideration would allow police to pull over drivers solely for not wearing their seat belt.

Currently, police in the state can ticket drivers for not buckling up only after stopping a vehicle for another traffic violation, such as speeding or a bad taillight.

The Arkansas State Police is part of a coalition that wants to allow for primary enforcement of the state’s seat-belt law.

Opponents cite personal choice and the potential for racial profiling among the concerns about the stricter enforcement effort. Supporters say saving lives and the lure of federal money should be reason enough to approve the stricter rule.

If approved, Arkansas would be line for a one-time $9.5 million payment from the federal government.

The 2005 Federal Highway Bill gives any state that adopts tougher seat-belt rules or achieves a belt usage rate of 85 percent one-time grant money equal to 500 percent of the highway funding they received in 2003.

Arkansas has a seat-belt usage rate of 68 percent.

There are 25 states without a primary seat-belt law. Twenty-four states allow police to pull over drivers solely for not wearing their seat belts. New Hampshire is the only state without a mandatory seat-belt law.

Hendren’s cell phone bills are in the Senate Transportation, Technology & Legislative Affairs Committee.


– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor