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Lawmakers back hand-held cellphone ban for drivers

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House Bill 144 would prohibit motorists from holding a cellphone while driving in North Carolina. All area lawmakers say they support the measure.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The General Assembly is looking to ban drivers from holding their phones while driving, and local lawmakers unanimously support the idea.

State Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, and the three House representatives representing the Albemarle all offered their tentative support for the “Hands-Free NC Act,” or House Bill 144, in interviews this week.

As currently written, the bill forbids driving while holding a “wireless communication device,” or while using it for texting or to watch video. The wording leaves leeway for the use of smartphones while docked, whether for hands-free calls or navigation, and provides exceptions for use of devices in emergencies. It would also allow first responders to use wireless communication devices in their official duties.

Violations would carry fines of $100 to $200, and possibly a loss of insurance points, depending on prior violations of the device restrictions.

Steinburg said he supports the restrictions, although he conceded, “I know some people are going to feel like that's taking away their right arm.” However, he said he agrees there are too many distracted drivers on the road, and that's putting others at risk.

He said he's started limiting how much he handles his own phone while driving, including for calls, so as to minimize distractions.

Steinburg acknowledged some may consider the bill “overreach,” but reiterated distracted drivers need to consider they're putting others at risk, not just themselves.

State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, said he also supports the bill for which he is a cosponsor. The bill will allow for hands-free calls, such as by using Bluetooth devices, and he expects the measure’s language to be fixed to allow drivers to keep using CB radios.

Critics of the bill view it as an example of the “nanny state,” Hunter said, and he said he sympathizes with those concerns. However, there are simply too many distracted drivers texting or fumbling with their phones, and something has to be done, he said.

“I like it and I don't,” he said of H144.

State Rep. Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan, said the state has tried restrictions on texting and “scare tactics” over the years to discourage driving while distracted.

“That hasn't worked,” he said. There are too many accidents involving distracted drivers, and too many tragic stories of young people dying due to distracted driving.

Goodwin said he enjoys his freedoms like everyone else, but framed the bill as one more rule needed to protect good drivers from irresponsible ones. He likened the bill to the state’s seatbelt law.

State Rep. Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, is also a co-sponsor of H144. He said the legislation is still evolving, and there are concerns about allowing use of smartwatches and radios. However, he feels he’ll be able to vote for the final bill.

“It's a needed bill,” Hanig said, adding lawmakers have drawn widespread praise from safety advocates and even out-of-state insurance companies for considering the legislation.

“I haven't spoken to one person who disagrees it's an issue,” he added, referring to distracted driving.

A primary sponsor of H144 couldn't be reached for comment Thursday on traffic statistics that support the legislation.

The N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles' latest annual crash report found that, in 2017, overall traffic crashes were about 275,000 statewide, an increase of almost 3 percent from 2016. It reports that about a fifth of all accidents involved a distracted driver, adding the caveat that driver distraction is self-reported and “the data may not reflect the severity of the issue.”

The report also states that distraction by electronic devices, including phones and DVD players, was a contributing factor in about 2,000 accidents. The report doesn't specify in which accidents those devices were the primary or sole cause.

H144 is currently being considered by the House insurance committee, and yet to be voted on, according to the General Assembly's website.

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