Road safety bills die, stall in Delaware

| Tuesday, June 05, 2007

An effort intended to improve safety on roadways in Delaware by restricting drivers’ cell phone use has died. Another bill to toughen the state’s open container law is stalled.

House lawmakers voted 22-10 to reject a bill that would have prohibited drivers in the state from using hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” accessory would still have been permitted.

The bill – HB78 – would have made violation of the restriction a secondary offense – meaning a person would have to be pulled over for another violation before they could be ticketed for talking on the phone. Violators would have faced up to $50 fines. Emergency calls would have been exempted.

It also would have prohibited towns and cities from enacting their own cell phone restriction ordinances.

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.

Critics also point out that Delaware law already allows motorists to be charged with inattentive driving for any number of infractions, including cell phone use, if their behavior is dangerous.

Rep. Joe Miro, R-Foxfire, the bill’s sponsor, said he plans to continue his pursuit of stricter cell phone rules for drivers.

Another bill that appears stalled in the House 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.

The open container bill has been out of committee since late March and awaiting further consideration in the House.

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