New restrictions on cellphone use while driving stalled in the Colorado House on Wednesday as lawmakers wrestled with emotional testimony and the logistics of enforcing the proposal.
With the bill, Colorado would join 12 states and the District of Columbia in requiring drivers to use a hands-free device while talking on the phone. However, the proposal is in limbo because it didn’t get enough votes to pass an initial legislative committee, but procedurally it’s still alive.
Before voting, lawmakers heard hours of testimony, including that of Shelley Forney, whose 9-year-old daughter was killed in 2008 by a distracted driver. Forney cried as she told lawmakers how her daughter, Erica, was riding home from school in Fort Collins when she was struck by a driver who was on the phone.
“That was the last day I ever used it,” she added. She showed a picture of her daughter with the words, “No call or text is worth a life.”
Lawmakers deadlocked on the bill. They voted 7-6 to prevent it from advancing out of the House Transportation and Energy Committee and then voted 6-7 on the question of whether the proposal should be shelved this year. That means they can still consider the proposal before the legislative session ends in May.
Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, voted against advancing the bill and then was the vote that kept the proposal alive.
“It was a hard vote to take because when you have someone come and share that emotional testimony … it’s really hard to separate your emotions from the policy consideration,” he said.
Moreno said he “couldn’t close the door on the issue” and that he hopes the bill sponsor will try to address some of the concerns lawmakers raised in voting no on the bill. One of the issues was ensuring there would be uniformity in enforcing the law.
Under the measure, using a cellphone without a hands-free device would be considered a secondary offense, meaning that law enforcement could issue a citation only if a driver was stopped for another violation first. However, in school or construction zones, violators could be cited immediately.
Some lawmakers also wanted the bill to have stiffer penalties for offenders, instead of a $50 fine for a first offense and a $100 fine for a second.
Democratic Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora lawmaker and the bill’s sponsor, said he hoped to “encourage people to put the phone down and basically put their hands on the wheel and focus on the road.”
Colorado already prohibits texting while driving, along with 40 other states.
Melton said it would be up to legislative leaders to decide whether to schedule the bill for another hearing.
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