Michigan lawmakers took a key step this week toward prohibiting the use of cell phones to send or read text messages while driving, but some say the measure is watered down and wouldn’t do enough to crack down on distracted motorists.
The Republican-led Senate passed two bills by 31-6 votes that would make texting a secondary offense, which means police would need another reason to pull over motorists –such as speeding or careless driving — before they could be cited for texting. Some lawmakers say that weakens the measure and ties the hands of police officers trying to prevent accidents.
The Democrat-led House has passed nearly identical legislation. Leaders in the two chambers will have to figure out bill sponsorship and take final votes on a compromise measure before it could be sent to Gov. Jennifer Granholm for her signature.
Granholm would sign the legislation if it reaches her desk, spokeswoman Megan Brown said.
An amendment that would have made texting while driving a primary offense — meaning police could pull over a motorist over for texting alone — narrowly failed in the Senate.
“We must make this a real law, not just perfume on a pig,” said Sen. Bruce Patterson, a Republican from Wayne County’s Canton Township and the amendment’s sponsor.
Patterson joined the majority of senators from both parties voting in favor of the final version of the Senate legislation Tuesday. Sponsors of the bipartisan legislation said making texting a secondary offense was proper, noting other driving laws in Michigan have taken a similar path.
Failure to wear a seat belt in Michigan, for example, was a secondary offense before becoming a primary offense.
“It’s an evolutionary process,” said Sen. Buzz Thomas, a Democrat from Detroit and one of the legislation’s sponsors.
More than half the states have banned at least some drivers from sending text messages while behind the wheel, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s a primary offense in most of those states.
The Senate-approved bill would prohibit reading, writing or sending a text message on a device held by hand or on a driver’s lap. The fine would be $200 for a first offense.
Thomas said the bill is written so it would allow the use of popular GPS devices in vehicles, as long as they are mounted on a dashboard.
The Senate vote came the same day as a U.S. Transportation Department announcement that truck and bus drivers are prohibited from sending text messages on hand-held devices while operating commercial vehicles.
The prohibition, which applies to drivers of interstate buses and trucks over 10,000 pounds, is effective immediately. Truck and bus drivers who text while driving commercial vehicles may be subject to civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750, the department said.
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