Politics & Government

NC legislators pause on handheld cellphone ban; distracted driving bill left for dead

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In 2015, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. If you text and drive, your next message may be your last.
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In 2015, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. If you text and drive, your next message may be your last.

A House bill that would have banned the use of handheld cellphones while driving has died in a Senate committee, but its sponsors and supporters say they will try again next session.

The Hands Free NC Act sought to eliminate a source of distracted driving that its proponents say contributes to crashes that kill and injure people and drive up insurance rates. Its primary sponsor in the House, Rep. Kevin Corbin, a Republican who represents the far western tip of the state, owns an insurance agency, and state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey and industry groups were vocal supporters.

The bill had no organized opposition, says Joe Stewart, a lobbyist for the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina.

“No one is for distracted driving,” Stewart said. “Distracted driving does not have a lobbyist working on its behalf.”

But Stewart said he and other supporters failed to persuade enough legislators that the state should prohibit something people have felt free to do while behind the wheel.

“You’ve got to make a strong case that a public safety benefit warrants that restriction,” Stewart said. “Our hope is to be able to come back in 2020 and make another run at this.”

Corbin fashioned the bill after one approved last summer in Georgia, which became the 16th state to ban handheld cellphone use while driving. This spring, Tennessee became the 17th, using the Georgia law as a template, Stewart said.

Supporters say North Carolinians are ready for a ban. A poll of 660 registered voters conducted by Meredith College this winter found that about 79 percent believed the General Assembly should address distracted driving and that 82 percent would support a “hands-free law” to bar the use of handheld cellphones or other electronic devices.

“It is clear that most citizens now recognize the serious problems that handheld devices present for safety on North Carolina roads,” David McLennan, director of The Meredith Poll, said in a statement when an earlier version of the poll was released last fall. “The support for new legislation to address the problems these devices cause cuts across political, economic, geographical, and educational lines, meaning that people don’t see this as a controversial political issue.”

And yet for years proposals to ban handheld phones while driving have gone nowhere in the General Assembly. Even support from then House Speaker Thom Tillis, now a U.S. senator, wasn’t enough to get a hands-free bill to move in 2011, and three bills introduced since then in the Senate by another Republican, former Sen. Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg County, also failed to get a vote.

The General Assembly did make it illegal for drivers under 18 to talk on a handheld cellphone and for drivers of any age to text and drive. But law enforcement agencies say enforcing the texting ban is difficult, because drivers are still allowed to hold a phone to talk or get directions.

Corbin said when he introduced the proposed ban this winter he expected it would be difficult to persuade conservatives like himself that it was worth impinging on people’s personal freedom. He said he understands the hesitation among legislators.

“I’m very aware that this bill would affect 7 million drivers in North Carolina. It’s a big deal,” he said. “When you have a bill that affects the public so widely, it should be scrutinized.”

Corbin agreed to several changes as the bill moved through committees in the House, until a watered down version was approved by the full House in May. It banned the use of handheld phones and electronic devices only if it resulted in careless or reckless driving.

Corbin and his allies in the Senate sought to have the blanket ban restored, and hoped to do it in the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee. Instead, Corbin said he learned secondhand that the committee’s leaders had decided not to bring it up for consideration. The committee’s three chairmen — John Alexander Jr., Chuck Edwards and Rick Gunn — did not respond to a request for comment.

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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 19 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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