Rhode Island OK’s tougher drunken-driving rule, texting ban

| 11/3/2009

Rhode Island lawmakers wrapped up a two-day special session after addressing nearly 200 bills left over from the regular session. Among the bills to be approved are efforts to crack down on drunken drivers and to ban texting while driving.

Senate lawmakers voted to send to Gov. Donald Carcieri a bill that would allow police to obtain search warrants compelling chemical substance tests for certain suspected drunken drivers. House lawmakers approved the bill – H5039 – during the summer.

After obtaining a search warrant, officers would have authority to take blood from drunken-driving suspects who are involved in serious or fatal wrecks. Any chemical testing must be documented on audio and videotape.

Blood samples could be required only after the suspected offender refused to take a breathalyzer test.

Supporters say the requirement is a long time coming. The attorney general’s office has sought passage of legislation to permit police to get warrants requiring drunken-driving suspects involved in serious wrecks to submit to screenings.

According to the state’s Legislative Press and Information Bureau, 44 states allow law enforcement officers to draw blood in cases where a person is seriously injured or killed. In 28 states, police are permitted to forcibly have blood drawn from suspected drunken drivers involved in wrecks resulting in serious injury or death. Sixteen other states allow police to get a search warrant or court order to obtain blood from a suspected drunken driver where death or serious injury occurred.

The House and Senate also passed a bill that is intended to limit driver distractions. Carcieri is expected to sign the bill – S204 – forbidding text messaging while at the wheel. Talking on handheld cell phones would still be allowed.

Those caught reading, typing or sending text messages while driving could face up to $85 fines. Repeat offenders could face $100 fines, and subsequent offenses could result in $125 fines.

Supporters say the ban would help make roads safer. Critics question how the police would be able to determine that a driver was texting and not dialing a phone number. Others say the bill should have included an all-out ban on the use of cell phones while driving.

With the governor’s signature, the texting ban would go into effect immediately. Rhode Island would become the 14th state to enforce the ban.

Nearly 20 states have approved bans on the practice of operating a motor vehicle while texting. On Sunday, Nov. 1, New York became the 13th state to enforce its ban. Colorado and North Carolina texting bans are slated to take effect Dec. 1. Illinois, Oregon and New Hampshire are scheduled to start enforcing their laws Jan. 1.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is working with the Department of Transportation to help reduce distracted driving.

The Association would like to see more ride-alongs with law enforcement agencies. The experience allows officers to sit in the cab and see firsthand how people drive around trucks. Such programs could also lead to better enforcement of existing traffic laws.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Rhode Island in 2009, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Editor’s Note: Please share your thoughts with us about the legislation included in this story. Comments may be sent to statelegislativedesk@ooida.com.