State Could Ban Drivers from Using Handheld Phones

  LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Alarmed by the number of motorists staring at their screens instead of the road, lawmakers are proposing to make Michigan the 15th state to ban driving while holding a hand-held phone.

   Police and safety advocates say the current prohibition against texting and driving is outdated, vague and difficult to enforce. To save lives, they contend, a blanket ban on hand-held devices should be considered -- with exceptions for hands-free technology.
   Nearly 12,800 crashes in Michigan last year involved distracted driving, a 70 percent spike from 2015 and more than double the 5,350 crashes in 2014. Forty-one fatal crashes were attributed to distracted driving in 2016, up from 28 the year before and 13 in 2014.
   "One life lost is way too many," said Jim Santilli, chief executive officer of the Transportation Improvement Association. The group, state police and other law enforcement officials are advocating for the hands-free legislation.
   A House committee held an initial hearing on the bill this past week and will meet again May 30. The measure would overhaul and stiffen the state's 2010 law that makes texting and driving a civil infraction.
   The fine for an initial violation would jump from $100 to $250. A second violation would cost the driver $500 instead of $200 and add a point to their license. A third infraction would bring two more points.
   The new ban would apply regardless of whether a motorist is stopped at a traffic light. The law now prohibits texting while operating a vehicle "that is moving on a highway or street," and it is common to see drivers looking down at their phones at a red light or stop sign.
   "I understand that some traffic lights can be long. But when it's green, those of us behind you would like to move. ... We're not trying to prohibit people from talking on the phone or even voice-activated text messaging. It's about where your eyes are focused," said the bill sponsor, Republican Rep. Martin Howrylak of Troy.
   He said the law needs an update to "at the very least" forbid drivers from using their phones for other purposes: social media, email, online shopping and the like. Police say they're unable to ticket people who say they were on Facebook, for instance, and authorities seem unwilling to issue careless driving citations that add three points to someone's record.
   "The current law is nearly impossible to enforce for us because we don't know what people are doing on their phones," said Auburn Hills Police Chief Doreen Olko.
   Under the legislation, a driver could use a portable electronic device if it can be activated or deactivated "with a single swipe or tap" and is mounted on the windshield, dashboard or central console so that one's view of the road is not hindered.
   No legislator opposed the bill at the hearing Tuesday, though some did ask proponents to address arguments that it would impinge on personal freedoms or be ineffective because smartphone usage is so ingrained. Advocates said broader hands-free bans have had a positive effect in states such as California.
   They also cite federal data saying drivers who use a hand-held device are four times more likely to be in a crash serious enough to cause injuries. Texting drivers are 23 times more likely to crash.
   Auto insurers believe drivers who text, use smartphone apps or are otherwise distracted are a big factor in a surge in traffic fatalities and injuries nationwide. In December, Michigan's Office of Highway Safety Planning released a survey in which four in 10 motorists between age 20 and 30 admitted to regularly sending texts and emails while driving.
   The Michigan State Police has launched "Operation Ghostrider" in urban areas. Two officers use an unmarked car to look for distracted driving and then alert a marked vehicle to initiate a traffic stop.
   Sgt. Matt Williams, a legislative liaison for the agency, said an across-the-board ban on driving while using a hand-held device would be "very helpful" for enforcement. He commutes from Grand Rapids to Lansing and "everybody's on their cellphone as you're driving by them," he said. "Most people, they almost all know someone who's been negatively impacted by distracted driving."