Road safety bills advance in Delaware

| Thursday, April 19, 2007

To improve safety on roadways in Delaware, one bill would prohibit drivers in the state from talking on hand-held devices while driving. Another bill would toughen the state’s open container law.

The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved a bill – HB78 – that would prohibit drivers from using hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” accessory would still be permitted.

A provision attached to the bill for consideration on the House floor would allow law enforcement to pull over drivers solely for violating the cell phone restriction.

Violators would face up to $50 fines. Emergency calls would be exempted.

Currently, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have the only statewide laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles. In 2008, California is slated to implement its own rule. Other states also are looking into implementing their own rules.

Supporters say that studies show how cell phones distract drivers and lead to vehicle wrecks.

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

In fact, research by the University of North Carolina determined that cell-phone use ranked eighth in terms of distraction, The Patriot-News reported.

Another bill approved by the House panel also is intended to make the state’s roadways safer.

The bill – HB20 – would ban consumption and possession of open containers of alcohol in vehicles traveling highways in the state. Exceptions are included for passengers in RVs, fifth-wheel trailers, buses, limousines and taxis.

Under Delaware law, drivers are barred from having an open container of alcohol, but passengers 21 years of age or older are not.

Supporters say the current rules are difficult to enforce because drivers can just hand the container to passengers if pulled over. Opponents say police have enough tools to combat drinking and driving, such as breathalyzers and field sobriety tests.

Delaware is only one of a few states that allow open alcohol containers in vehicles. This year, that distinction is expected to force the state to pull 3 percent, or about $8 million, out of the highway construction budget and put it to other uses

The federal government mandated in 2001 that states either pass open container laws or spend a percentage of federal highway dollars on traffic safety projects such as installing cables to prevent crossover accidents and drunken driving checkpoints.

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