Road Worrier

Senate pushes for phone-free driving

Staff WriterJune 22, 2010 

Don't tell the tea party, but some Democrats and Republicans are openly collaborating in Washington to make streets safer from reckless cell-phone texters and talkers.

A Senate bill with bipartisan support would reward states with millions of dollars in grants if they outlaw the widespread, deadly distractions of reading and writing text messages and phoning behind the wheel.

North Carolina is half the way there, as one of 28 states that ban texting for all drivers. Phoning while driving is still legal here except for two groups: school-bus drivers and all drivers under 18.

Our partial bans are steps in the right direction, but their limitations make them hard to enforce. Even if a cop sees that driver gripping her new Samsung Galaxy S Pro Android phone, it might be hard to guess how she's using it or how old she is.

Perhaps the Senate approach would nudge our legislators to go the rest of the way. The Distracted Driving Prevention Act of 2010 is sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.

Traffic safety is mostly a state responsibility, but states rely on the feds for a lot of their transportation money. So in the 1980s after Congress threatened to cut their highway funds unless states raised the drinking age to 21, the states agreed.

Republicans and some Democrats this year rejected similar tactics to pressure states on phone-impaired driving. But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas led several Republicans as co-sponsors of Rockefeller's bill, which cleared the Senate Commerce Committee this month.

It would tap a pool of traffic safety grants, estimated at $90 million to $120 million, as incentives for states to adopt the twin bans.

"Historically, it's when the feds threaten to withhold funds from the states that you see the quickest action, so it remains to be seen how effective this approach would be," said Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill.

States would have to spend at least half of their grants for enforcement and education campaigns - which have been lacking in North Carolina - to reduce phoning and texting behind the wheel.

The bill would allow hands-free phoning, as all states do now - even though safety experts say it's just as risky as the hand-held variety. Eight states ban hand-held phones for all drivers.

Meanwhile, North Carolina is moving ahead on another front addressed in Rockefeller's bill.

That front would expand traffic crash reports to add details about whether any drivers were using cell phones at the time of the crash.

The state Division of Motor Vehicles is working now, with advice from safety and law enforcement experts, to update the standardized form officers use for more than 200,000 crash reports every year.

Safety experts say cell phones are involved in 28 percent of all crashes, but that's only an estimate. If investigators collected that information for every crash, drivers and legislators would have a better understanding of the issue.

It won't be easy to get that information. Unless a witness says the driver was talking on the phone, "it must be self-reported," said Sgt. Roger D. Smock Jr. of the state Highway Patrol, who trains crash investigators. "And that depends on the driver's honesty."

Officers need search warrants or subpoenas to get cell-phone records, and that could add time and expense to minor crash investigations as well as major ones.

But Ethel Keen, who oversees traffic records for DMV, said cell phone information will be included when the state's crash report form is updated in the coming year.

"We know it's something that has to be done," Keen said. "I think everyone knows that it's coming."

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