States continue push to reduce 'distracted driving'

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Thursday, April 12, 2012

Efforts to rein in the use of hand-held devices while driving continue to receive a lot of attention at statehouses across the country.

The National Safety Council says driver distractions, as well as alcohol and speeding, are leading factors in serious injury crashes. The council estimates that 28 percent of all traffic crashes – or at least 1.6 million crashes – each year are caused by drivers using cellphones. An additional 200,000 crashes annually involve drivers who are texting.

In response to safety concerns, a total of 37 states have acted to outlaw the distracted driving practice in recent years. Idaho and West Virginia are the latest states to prohibit drivers from text messaging while at the wheel.

Effective July 1, law enforcement in both states can enforce the bans as a primary offense, meaning drivers could be cited solely for violating the rule.

The Idaho law specifies that tickets can be handed out to anyone caught reviewing, preparing or sending text messages while driving. Violators would face $85 fines.

A change made to the bill – SB1274 – as it made its way through the Idaho Legislature includes emergency personnel and law enforcement.

In West Virginia, offenders would face fines that start at $100. Three points would be added to driver’s licenses after their third citation.

The Mountain State’s new rule includes a restriction on talking while driving. In addition to the texting rule, SB211 makes it a secondary offense to chat with a hand-held device. As a result, officers couldn’t cite offenders without pulling them over for a separate violation.

However, the restriction on enforcement is only temporary. The cellphone rule is slated to become a primary offense in July 2013.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said action was necessary because both activities leave a driver impaired.

Utah lawmakers also addressed the issue of combining driving with texting. Previously SB98, the new law closes a loophole that allowed drivers to avoid a citation if they didn’t actually hit send.

A bill halfway through the Alaska Legislature would make a clarification to the state’s existing ban, which doesn’t specifically mention texting. HB255 would add wording that is intended to nix any potential court challenges.

The South Carolina House approved a texting ban that would authorize fines of up to $150. H4451 includes a provision that requires law enforcement officers to have “probable cause” that the law has been violated before stopping someone. Officers would also need to obtain a search warrant before looking at information stored on your cellphone.

Two Illinois bills address the distraction. House lawmakers approved one bill – HB3972 – to prohibit drivers from using hand-held cellphones. Fines would start at $75. The classification as a moving violation means that offenders could lose their driving privileges after a third violation in one year.

The state’s Senate voted to advance a similar rule. SB2488 would specifically prohibit cellphone use in highway work zones and school zones. Offenders would face fines of at least $250. Repeat offenses within two years would result in a 90-day license suspension.

Both bills have moved to the opposite chamber for further consideration.

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