Democratic legislators this year are again lining up bills that would outlaw texting while driving and, in some cases, ban hand-held phone use while driving.
They’re continuing efforts in the 2009 session from Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, whose text-banning bill died in committee. She’s sponsoring a similar bill this year.
“It’s back, but this session, it is also going to include hands-free phones,” she said. “We’re going to go for the whole enchilada in this thing.”
Her renewed efforts follows a nationwide trend to legislate cell phone use behind the wheel. Thirty states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, and eight states ban hand-held cell phone use.
The senator said talking or texting while driving will be a primary offense under her bill, meaning police could pull you over for seeing you use a cell phone.
The first offense would include a $250 fine, the second a $500 fine and the third a $1,000 fine and suspension of driver’s license.
The state’s Department of Public Safety is sponsoring a similar bill that would also ban talking and texting behind the wheel.
Punishment for doing either could be a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor for three repeated offenses within seven years. If the police can pin cellphone use while driving to a fatality or “substantial bodily harm,” it would result in a felony offense and prison time.
Two other bills are still in draft form. One is from Assemblyman Harvey Munford, D-Las Vegas, who said he is sponsoring a bill because members of a family in his district died in an automobile accident directly attributable to cell phone use. The other comes from four assembly members: Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, and Speaker-elect John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas.
Incoming Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, has a proposal that would ban talking and texting while driving only for teenaged drivers.
Although past attempts have failed, these bills will be debated in a changed political landscape.
Munford pointed out that the leadership in both the Assembly and Senate has changed, and both chambers have many freshmen legislators.
How (un)safe is driving while texting?
The flurry of pre-session activity comes as the state amps up an anti-distracted-driving message.
No Phone Zone Nevada is a recent initiative aimed at curbing distracted driving, which has accounted for about six percent of accidents in the five years between 2005 and 2009, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. In the same span, the department marked distracted driving as the cause of 53 deaths statewide.
Nationwide, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 5,500 people died in 2009 alone due to distracted driving.
That isn’t cell phone use alone. In Nevada, the term can apply to using a cell phone, applying make-up, fumbling with a radio or CD player, reading, eating, or smoking behind the wheel and even attending to needs of children.
But Erin Breen, executive director of the UNLV Transportation Research Center, said that texting is “by far the worst.”
She also said that hand-held or hands-free use of a cell phone doesn’t matter:
“All the research tells me hands free versus hand-held has no difference at all. It’s not the act of having something in your hand, it’s that your mind is elsewhere.”
Nonetheless, Breen said the current political environment probably won’t condone a total cell phone ban.
“I’m so torn with the hands-free thing because I know they’re no safer…but we also have to be realistic about what’s possible,” she said.
Opponents of such a ban have, in the past, mainly argued that such bans legislate what police cannot enforce.
Indeed, some transportation researchers say reported instances of distracted driving may be lower than actual rates because it’s difficult to prove for officers, and drivers may avoid reporting it themselves.
Regardless, Breen says a ban would curb unsafe behavior because the majority of citizens want to follow the law no matter the chance of being caught breaking it.
Past efforts also failed
This debate is nothing new. Former state Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, tried to legislate against distracted driving in general during the 2001 legislative session.
He testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, bringing forth evidence that cell phone use increases the chance of accidents.
But he ran up against heavy opposition from other legislators.
Like Care’s bill, Breeden’s more-recent effort also faced opposition and ultimately died in committee.
Further stabs at reform will have to come through the Legislature. A state law says that any regulation about cell phone use while driving has to originate from the legislature. An agency, board, commission or other part of government doesn’t have the power to do it.
The 76th Legislative session starts this Feb. 7.