Politics & Government

NC Republicans say they must overcome libertarian streak to pass hands-free cellphone bill

The Hands Free NC Act would ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving in North Carolina.
The Hands Free NC Act would ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving in North Carolina. AP

The conservative Republicans who introduced a House bill to ban the use of hand-held phones while driving in North Carolina say they expect the main opposition to come from legislators like themselves.

Rep. Kevin Corbin of Macon County, near the western tip of the state, said he’s not aware of any organized opposition to House Bill 144, the “Hands Free NC Act.” Instead, Corbin said during a news conference Wednesday, the legislators most likely to vote against the bill will be those who worry about government interfering in people’s lives.

“I’m a conservative Republican with libertarian leanings myself. When I was a county commissioner, I worked hard to get rid of regulations that weren’t necessary,” Corbin told reporters.

But Corbin and others argue that distracted driving has become such a public health problem that banning the use of hand-held cellphones while driving has become a reasonable and necessary step for government to take. Distracted driving was a factor in nearly 10 percent of the more than 1,400 traffic deaths on North Carolina roads last year, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.

“It’s not about personal liberty,” Corbin said, “because you don’t have the right to do something that endangers me or my family.”

The bill would prohibit drivers from using a hand-held phone to talk, play games, watch video or access the internet while driving, including while stopped at a traffic light. Using a speakerphone or a Bluetooth system would still be allowed. Drivers caught violating the law face a $100 fine the first time, with higher fines and points on the driver’s license that could increase insurance rates for subsequent violations.

If the bill passes and is signed in to law, North Carolina would join 16 other states that have banned hand-held cellphone use while driving. Those states include Democratic strongholds such as New York, California, Hawaii and Vermont, but also more conservative ones such as Nevada and Georgia, where a hands-free bill became law last summer.

Georgia Rep. John Carson, the main sponsor of the Hands Free Georgia Act, said the bill ultimately passed with wide bipartisan support, but not without a lot of work to counter arguments about personal liberty.

“If I tried to pass the Hands Free Georgia Act in my chamber, the Georgia House, it would have failed the first day,” Carson told reporters at the news conference. “But it took the families; it took law enforcement; it took advocates, all coming together. It was a groundswell.”

The Hands Free NC Act is at least the fourth attempt to ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving in North Carolina. Former state Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, introduced a similar bill three times, starting seven years ago, and says a strong libertarian streak among legislators doomed all three. (This paragraph has been corrected to indicate that Tarte is no longer in office.)

But Tarte says this year feels different, with the insurance industry getting involved more heavily. Joining legislators at Wednesday’s press conference to support the bill was Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey.

“We had $26 billion worth of damage from distracted driving in North Carolina last year,” Tarte said. “It’s just a massive cost in property and lives. And we can stop it.”

The Hands Free NC Act has 46 sponsors in the House — 24 Republicans and 22 Democrats. Three of the bill’s four main sponsors are among the chamber’s top Republicans, including Jon Hardister of Guilford County, the majority whip.

“I tend to be skeptical about regulations and telling people what they can and cannot do,” Hardister said. “But we must have a delineation between personal liberties and safety, especially on the highways.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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