North Carolina

Senators will push to restore handheld cellphone ban to distracted driving bill

They know the danger, but drivers keep doing distracting things

Most people are aware of the dangers of trying to multitask while driving — research shows talking on the phone is as likely to lead to a wreck as being legally intoxicated — but most continue to do just that, and many other distracting things, an
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Most people are aware of the dangers of trying to multitask while driving — research shows talking on the phone is as likely to lead to a wreck as being legally intoxicated — but most continue to do just that, and many other distracting things, an

Three state senators say they hope to restore a bill that would make it illegal in North Carolina to use a hand-held cellphone while driving.

The Hands-Free North Carolina Act originated in the state House, but the version that was approved and sent to the Senate last month was greatly watered down. It would ban the use of a hand-held phone or electronic device only if it causes “distracted behavior that impairs or otherwise restricts” the driver and results in driving that is “careless, reckless or heedless.”

The three senators, all Republicans, said they plan to offer an amendment in the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee that would restore language to simply ban the use of a hand-held phone while driving. At a news conference Tuesday, all three described themselves as conservatives and spoke of their inclination not to intrude in people’s lives.

“I personally think we’ve got too many laws on the books; I’m not big on introducing new laws,” said Sen. Jim Burgin of Harnett County. “But I think there are some things we’ve got to deal with, and I think this is one of them.”

Rep. Kevin Corbin introduced the Hands-Free North Carolina Act in February, with backing from state Insurance Commissioner MIke Causey and 46 sponsors — 24 Republicans and 22 Democrats. The bill was inspired in part by a hands-free law enacted in Georgia last year that supporters say has already reduced crashes and highway deaths caused by distracted driving.

But in early May, Corbin, who represents the westernmost counties in the state, said the watered-down version was the one favored by his “boss,” House Speaker Tim Moore. It passed the full House by a 4 to 1 margin.

Corbin joined Burgin and senators Todd Johnson of Union County and Vickie Sawyer of Iredell County at Tuesday’s press conference, to lend his support to restoring the language that would make it a simple ban. There would be exceptions for emergencies, and using Bluetooth, cellphone holders or other hands-free technology would still be permitted.

Also on hand was Tammy Garlock of Charlotte, whose 17-year-old son Brian was killed in 2008 after he pulled in front of a pickup truck while attempting to make a cellphone call. Garlock has driven to Raleigh several times to support the hands-free bill and says the current version is ambiguous and almost impossible to enforce.

“The original version was, in my opinion, very clean. You’re either doing this or you’re not,” she said. “It was very logical. It was enforceable. And what we have now is just kind of a mess.”

Laws passed since Brian Garlock’s death make it illegal for drivers under 18 to talk on a hand-held cellphone and for drivers of any age to text and drive. But law enforcement agencies say enforcing the texting ban is difficult, because drivers are still allowed to hold a phone to talk or get directions.

“The bottom line is the current no-texting law is unenforceable,” Garlock said. “You can’t enforce it, so it’s not doing anything. And we need to do something.”

Under the amendment the senators plan to introduce, drivers caught violating the law would face a $100 fine the first time, with higher fines and points on the driver’s license that could increase insurance rates for subsequent violations.

Whenever supporters of the hands-free bill talk about it they inevitably mention seeing distracted drivers or people using their cellphones behind the wheel. Burgin, who heads an insurance agency in Angier, spoke Tuesday about his own use of a cellphone while driving.

“I keep my phone in my jacket pocket, and if I don’t have a jacket on, I lay it on the seat,” he said. “Too many times it would ding, and I would pick it up. And so I’ve been really careful about trying to stop that habit.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 19 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.

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