News: CJ Exclusives

Hands-free legislation brings questions of personal liberty, enforcement challenges

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Image courtesy of Pixabay

On a Tuesday in June, mothers who lost children to distracted driving took a minute to speak.

The mothers stood alongside N.C. lawmakers, who are pushing for legislation requiring drivers to put down their phones.

Holding a phone while driving is akin to holding a weapon, Jeanette Nash told those who gathered for the news conference.

Nash’s son and his fiancée were killed when a young girl failed to stop in time and crashed into the back of their motorcycle. Nash said the driver was on her phone and failed to apply the brakes before crashing into traffic.

Another mother, Leigh Mingus, lost a daughter to a wreck in 2016. She was riding in a car with a driver who was texting while driving.

“This text took my whole life away,” Mingus said, per WRAL. “We’ve got to do something.”

Studies have shown the risk of crashing is four times higher when a driver is using a cell phone, regardless of whether they’re using hands-free technology or holding the mobile device. The University of Utah did a study in 2006 that found the behavior of drivers using a cell phone was similar to that of being under the influence of alcohol.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 2,935 fatal crashes due to distracted driving in 2017, amounting to 9% of all fatal crashes that year. Cell phone use was a factor in 401 fatal crashes.

Texting and driving is illegal in most states, but drivers are still largely allowed to talk on their cell phones, surf the internet, or check email without getting into legal trouble. But that’s quickly changing, as more and more states are adopting “hands-free” legislation.

“Legislation such as this tends to have widespread support because it reduces distracted driving and insurance fees and the like,” said Marc Hyden, director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute.

The R Street Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy organization focused on promoting free markets and limited government. The organization, though, doesn’t have an official position on “hands-free” legislation.

What “hands-free” legislation entails varies by state, but typically the new laws make driving while holding a cell phone illegal. New York in 2001 was the first state to ban using hand-held cell phones while driving. Since then, 18 states have enacted laws designed to prevent drivers from holding a cell phone.

Enter North Carolina.

Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Macon, introduced such legislation in February.

“This is a peril that didn’t exist just a few years ago,” Corbin said. “People had phones, they would talk on them, and honestly it is a distraction. But the thing that has happened in the past few years is that now people are checking their emails on their phones, they’re surfing the internet, they are posting pictures on their Facebook page, and it’s become a huge new peril that didn’t exist even 10 years ago.”

House Bill 144 would create a new offense for distracted driving. The law, if passed, would prohibit drivers from using their hands to engage in distracted behavior while operating a vehicle. Distracted driving, as defined in the bill, would include using a handheld mobile device while behind the wheel of a car. Violations would be punishable by a fine of $100, plus court costs.

Sens. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett; Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell; and Todd Johnson, R-Union; are looking to beef up H.B. 144 by returning language from when the bill was filed. The goal is to pass a true hands-free bill, as Corbin intended.

Scope of the problem

The DMV’s 2017 Traffic Crash report keeps data on distracted driving and car accidents. But because distracted driving is a self-reporting factor in traffic crashes, it’s challenging to determine the severity of the problem.

In 2017, 275,067 car accidents were reported in North Carolina. Of those, 54,133, or nearly 20%, were the result of distracted driving.

“Distracted driving comes in all forms and is a major safety issue on North Carolina roads, especially in work zones and in poor weather conditions,” said Steve Abbott, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Transportation said. “We take every opportunity to educate drivers to pay attention while operating their vehicles to help protect themselves, their passengers and occupants of other vehicles, whether it be following an already existing law like the one that bans texting and driving, or just general behavior while behind the wheel.”

Distracted driving goes beyond just talking on the phone. People can be distracted when they eat, apply makeup, or search for a radio station.

Unintended consequences

Jessica Kelley, manager of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute, isn’t entirely opposed to the idea of “hands-free” legislation, but she fears unintended consequences that may arise from such laws.

“I have one primary concern with it, and it’s that it’s going to have a negative racial impact on communities of color and low-income communities, Kelley said.

It’s easy to go hands-free with newer cars that have Bluetooth capability, Kelley said, but going hands-free may be a challenge for people with older cars.

Bluetooth technology started making an appearance in cars around 2010, and it has become increasingly more common in recent years.

“If you are driving an older model car, it is not that easy,” Kelley said. “In our modern world, where both parents are out of the home and you need to contact your kids, sometimes there is not another option other than talking on your cell phone.”

The criminal justice system can be difficult for anyone to navigate, but it’s particularly challenging for lower-income people. Hands-free legislation wouldn’t make that any easier.

“If I was not as fortunate, I might not be able to pay my traffic ticket, leading to this trickle-down criminal justice policy, where you have people continuously rotating in and out of the court system all because of their inability to pay fines,” Kelley said.

Collateral consequences have a tendency to multiply, Kelley said, meaning something as small as an inability to pay a fine could snowball into a suspended license or an arrest warrant for failing to appear in court.

Problems, too, may arise by inherently increasing interactions of police officers with communities of color.

“You’re just building this dichotomy that already exists or just exacerbating it for the violent tendencies between community policing and the communities that they’re supposed to serve,” Kelley said. “Any law that will build up that negative relationship is not one that I would personally support.”

Balancing public safety with personal liberty

Corbin said the bill is necessary. Distracted drivers are creating hazards on the streets, but law enforcement can’t do much about it. Corbin said he met with about a dozen highway patrol officers in his district, and he heard that they often see people driving while holding their phones.

The problem, Corbin said, is that officers sometimes pull over people who appear to be texting, yet they can say they were on Facebook, or they were using were GPS.

“That’s not illegal, that’s not against the law,” Corbin said. “As I understand it, they don’t even stop people anymore for texting and driving.”

Hands-free legislation wouldn’t differentiate between someone perusing Facebook or texting while driving.

But not every lawmaker is on board. Some who are critical of the idea say it’s another example of the nanny state trying to legislate people’s daily lives.

“The government is going to get into your car and ride around with you and watch what you’re doing,” Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston, said during a May 7 House session, per WRAL.

“Reckless driving is already against the law,” Rep. David Rogers, R-Rutherford, said during the May session.

Corbin said he anticipated some pushback from libertarian lawmakers, and he says he’s sympathetic to the argument the government has no business legislating what someone does with their phones and their cars.

But …

“This isn’t really a personal liberty issue,” Corbin said. “It’s a public safety issue.”

Leonard Robinson III contributed to this story.

[Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled Jessica Kelley’s last name as Kelly. We deeply regret the error.]