Legislation originally designed to prohibit hand-held cellphones while driving in North Carolina nearly stalled Friday after a rewrite because lawmakers worried it would punish people who eat or put on makeup behind the wheel.
Insurance and automobile safety groups unveiled the “hands free” idea this year with great fanfare, with the hopes of halting generally what have been upward trends in the state and nationally for traffic crashes and fatalities related to distracted driving, such as while using a phone.
The bipartisan legislation that cleared the House Transportation Committee in March would have barred all drivers from holding wireless devices with their hands or against their body. Violations would result in $100 fines, growing to $200 and additional penalties on insurance records for repeat offenses.
But in the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, primary bill sponsor Rep. Kevin Corbin of Macon County said the measure was altered in response to concerns from Speaker Tim Moore, a fellow Republican. Corbin said Moore was interested in “addressing a broader array of safe-driving distractions.”
But members raised several concerns about language they said could be interpreted so that any driver eating or drinking or using “grooming or cosmetic products” would be guilty of a new distracted driving offense. The proposal would do away with insurance points for violations, and fines would be limited to $100.
The list of “distracted behavior” also included the use of an electronic device, which critics worried could be defined as radios or electronic watches synced to phones.
“I think you’ve made the bill worse, and I don’t see how this is even remotely enforceable,” said Rep. Dana Bumgardner of Gaston County. “This bill needs some more work.”
Other bill sponsors defended the language, saying eating and grooming activities wouldn’t automatically lead to a distracted driving violation. “This does not prohibit me from having my ham biscuit on the way in to work in the mornings,” said Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, a co-sponsor.
Still, the committee agreed to remove that language before moving it along to yet another panel before a self-imposed deadline by the General Assembly. Bills largely unrelated to taxes or spending must pass the House by this week, or they likely can’t be heard again until 2021. The bill also would have to pass the Senate to become law.
Representatives for the AAA Carolinas motor club and insurance agents acknowledged the legislation needed more work but said it was worth advancing because the end goal was critically important.
“Not ultimately do we want to have thousands of additional tickets written – we want thousands of lives saved,” said Joe Stewart with the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Similar legislation in Tennessee is now on Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s desk.
North Carolina has had a prohibition on texting or emailing while driving since 2009, and drivers under 18 can’t use mobile phones at all.
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