BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The House Transportation Committee overwhelmingly approved a bill Monday, April 29 that would ban drivers from holding their cell phones while behind the wheel.
Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, authored the legislation, which expands on existing law prohibiting texting and driving. Some law enforcement officers say the current ban is unenforceable because it’s difficult to distinguish whether drivers are legally scrolling through social media or illegally texting.
“It’s about safety,” Huval said. "It’s to protect innocent lives.”
The bill will likely be amended so a first offense is punishable with community service, a second offense would cost $200, and a third will cost $300. Lawmakers also indicated they might amend the bill on the floor to further reduce fines and institute a grace period so the state can embark on a campaign to inform the public of the changes before they would be enforced.
“We think that we can at least encourage people to put that phone down and save lives in the process,” AAA’s Don Redman said. "That’s our primary goal.”
Lawmakers recounted personal experiences with distracted drivers during debate. A number of the experts who testified lost family members and loved ones to car wrecks caused by distracted driving.
“This is destroying families," StopDistractions.org CEO Jennifer Smith said. "Thousands of families have lost loved ones because of these crashes. I know this because my mother was killed by someone using their cell phone.”
Legislators in 18 other states have adopted similar laws.
“Traffic commute times have improved, traffic has improved, and there’s 98 percent awareness of the law,” Smith said of similar efforts in Georgia. "When people were getting pulled over on the first day, they said, ‘Man, this law is so great. What took you so long to pass it?’”
The committee approved the bill 13-2, although some lawmakers expressed concerns that the legislation unfairly targets cell phone users and omits other distractions.
“I was crossing the Mississippi bridge this morning and there was a lady weaving everywhere, putting eye makeup on," Rep. Terry Brown, I-Colfax, said. He later said he’d been hit twice at the same intersection in his hometown, once by a person reading the newspaper and another time by a woman reading her birth certificate.
He argued those sorts of potential distractions should be included in the law for consistency’s sake.
“Almost everybody who is driving today has a cell phone and not everybody just went and got their birth certificate," committee chair, Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, retorted. "Not everybody is looking for a map.”
Drivers could still operate their cell phones using hands-free devices built into their car or personal assistants like Siri and Alexa under Huval’s proposal.
The bill now heads to the House floor for debate.