House outlaws holding cellphone while driving -- if it’s distracting

May 7, 2019

Despite concerns that it either goes too far or doesn’t do enough, a bill outlawing distracted driving passed the House on Tuesday.

House Bill 144 would make it illegal for a driver’s hands to be occupied “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.”

“Distracted behavior” includes use of a hand-held phone or electronic device, according to the bill. It exempts law enforcement officers and first responders or anyone trying to communicate with them.

Texting while driving is already illegal in North Carolina, and drivers under 18 are generally prohibited from using a cellphone altogether while driving.

“I’ll be honest, I have been guilty of it,” Christopher Bailey said of checking his phone while driving. “But honestly, being that I have little ones, I’m [much] more cautious about it that I used to be.”

“I think it’s very dangerous,” driver Lisa Scott said. “I can’t say I don’t do it and don’t have it in my hand. I have it for my GPS all the time.”

The bill initially aimed to ban hand-held phones behind the wheel altogether. Phones would have to be mounted on the dashboard to be used. Georgia recently passed a similar proposal, and Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, said it’s working to decrease the number of crashes.

Subsequent efforts to expand House Bill 144 to include putting on makeup, combing hair or eating and drinking while driving were scuttled last week amid concerns over enforcement. and the hands-free phone aspect was also watered down.

Still, the notion of restricting phone use behind the wheel brought sharp criticism from libertarian members of the House.

“This is just another nanny state overreach bill,” said Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus.

“The government is going to get into your car and ride around with you and watch what you’re doing,” agreed Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston.

Distracted driving is a factor in more than 54,000 crashes in North Carolina – nearly 20 percent statewide – according to statistics compiled by the state Department of Transportation. It contributes to more crashes and far more injuries than alcohol, but less than half as many fatalities, those statistics show.

“Reckless driving is already against the law,” said Rep. David Rogers, R-Rutherford, arguing that the bill was feel-good legislation that doesn’t do anything.

Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, also called the bill flawed because the only penalty it carries is a $100 fine plus court costs. No points are assessed against a driver’s license or insurance, he noted, which could invite plenty of guilty pleas to this charge instead of reckless driving.

“It’s a loophole for someone driving very dangerous to walk out of court with no points on his or her record,” Richardson said.

He suggested sending it back to committee for more work, but sponsor Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Macon, promised the loophole would be closed in the Senate.

“Doing nothing is worse than doing something,” Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said, urging his colleagues to pass the bill.

“This will bring heightened awareness to people,” Lewis added. “It’s having a positive effect on people, on the way we think.”

The measure passed 92-23 and now heads to the Senate. If it becomes law, it would take effect Dec. 1.