AP NEWS

Distracted driving bill moves forward without language about eating behind the wheel

May 3, 2019

A bill meant to rein in cellphone use and other distracted driving moved forward at the General Assembly Friday, but with lawmakers acknowledging the legislation needs more work to become law.

House Bill 144 initially focused on cellphones, forbidding drivers from holding them, watching any sort of video or texting while driving. It allowed hands-free usage.

It morphed at House Speaker Tim Moore’s behest and emerged Thursday night as a broader bill targeting all sorts of distracted driving and specifically mentioning electronic devices, “grooming or cosmetic products and consumption of food or beverages.”

The changed prompted concerns from lawmakers worried about ham biscuits and drive-thru coffee, though legal staff said the charge would stick only if eating while driving also led to reckless driving.

After some discussion in the House Judiciary committee and acknowledgement from attorneys in the room that the bill was open to interpretation, language on cosmetics, food and beverage was stripped out. That left language that forbids “using the person’s hands to engage in distracted behavior that impairs or otherwise restricts the proper operation of the motor vehicle and results in operation that is careless, reckless, or heedless.”

The bill goes on to say that this “distracted behavior” includes use of a hand-held phone or electronic device.

With that done, the bill moved out of House Judiciary, but without the committee actually voting to recommend it become law. They simply sent it to the next step: a House Insurance committee meeting not yet scheduled.

The bill remains a priority for a number of lawmakers and various interest groups, including safe-driving advocates, insurance companies and law enforcement. Supporters promised more work on the language and hope to beat a May 9 “crossover” deadline at the General Assembly.

That’s the deadline for policy bills to pass at least one chamber – the House or the Senate – to stay alive for the two-year legislative session. There are some exceptions to this rule.

Texting while driving is already illegal in North Carolina, and drivers under 18 are generally prohibited from using a cellphone at all while driving. Other existing distracted driving rules in the state arguably already include applying makeup or eating food and other behaviors, legislative legal staff said Friday.

Distracted driving is a factor in nearly 20 percent of crashes in North Carolina, according to statistics compiled by the state Department of Transportation. That’s more than 54,000 accidents.

It contributes to more crashes and far more injuries than alcohol, but less than half as many fatalities, those statistics show.