A bipartisan state Senate bill would ban use of hand-held cellphones and other wireless devices while driving.
Senate Bill 20, titled "Hands Free NC," was introduced Wednesday. The bill, if signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper, would go into effect July 1.
It has as primary sponsors Republicans Jim Burgin of Johnson County and Kevin Corbin of Cherokee County, and Democrat Mike Woodard of Durham County. Republican Sen. Vickie Sawyer of Yadkin County is a co-sponsor.
Burgin said the bill contains several elements from House Bill 144 from 2019, also titled Hands Free NC, as well as language from a similar bill that passed the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 states have bans on hand-held cellphone use, also including Tennessee and Virginia.
North Carolina is among 48 states that already bans texting while driving. That law went into effect in 2009.
Burgin said SB20 is needed as a public-health safety measure akin to when seat belts were made mandatory. The bill's primary sponsors plan to hold a press conference on the legislation in early February.
"Using a wireless communication device not only affects you, but a lot of other people when you are distracted while driving," said Burgin, who describes himself as a Libertarian on most social regulatory issues.
Burgin agrees with the legislature conference's assessment that at least 80% of all drivers have used their wireless communications device while operating their vehicle.
"With the technology in most new cars, you don't need to touch your phone to use it," Burgin said.
"A prohibition on holding a device while driving is enforceable because it's observable by law enforcement, and it does address one of the most common forms of districted driving."
HB144 cleared the state House by a 91-24 vote in May 2019, only to stall in a Senate committee.
The bill reached the House floor only after a failed attempt to broaden what would have been considered a violation of the proposed law, including driving while eating or applying cosmetics.
Even though HB144 was approved by a wide margin, there was impassioned discussion about the effectiveness of the potential legislation, particularly whether it represented overreach or the penalties were too weak.
SB20 restores the penalties, which include fines of between $100 and $200 and between one and two insurance points for multiple offenses.
The bill would prohibit driving while using a wireless communication device that is held in the driver's hand. It also prohibits using such a device if it is supported somewhere on the driver's body unless it is part of wearable technology that does not require physical support.
The bill also reinforces the ban on texting and also bans driving while watching a video, movie or communication via video.
There are exceptions for first-responders, law enforcement and emergency medical personnel.
The bill would prevent individuals under age 18 from driving while using a wireless communication device.
A school bus driver violating the law could be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a jail sentence of between 1 and 60 days, and $1,000 fine.
The bill does not allow for law enforcement to seize the driver's wireless communications device.
Distracted driving data
According to a 2019 N.C. Transportation Department report on vehicle accidents, 20% or 55,000, were caused by distracted driving. Those accidents resulted in 24,000 injuries and 154 deaths.
There's support from the N.C. Sheriffs' Association and N.C. Chiefs of Police, a key sign-on since they would be responsible for enforcing the law.
A Meredith College poll in February 2019 found that 83.1% of respondents supported enactment of a hands-free law.
"North Carolinians believe that distracted driving needs to be treated like other traffic offenses, such as speeding, with similar punishments," said David McLennan, the poll's director.
The Meredith poll found that 56.6% of survey participants think that a $100 fine for first-time offenders is appropriate. Just more than half said a fine is sufficient punishment, while 36.8% say insurance should be affected.
"We support the concept of combating distracted driving, which has become an epidemic on our roads," AAA Carolinas spokeswoman Tiffany Wright said.
The Independent Insurance Agents of N.C. is a supporter of SB20.
Mike Causey, the state's insurance commissioner, has warned that "unless we do something the growing number of distracted driving accidents and injuries could force auto insurance rates up for everyone."
Causey has made a YouTube video expressing his support for the bill.
Local deaths cited
Former Rep. Derwin Montgomery, D-Forsyth, pointed to the deaths of Daryl Baucum, 15, and Isaiah Reynolds, 11, in stating his support for HB144.
May 2010 that Jayne Perkins was talking on a cellphone while driving her tractor-trailer on Interstate 40 near the Freeman Mill Road exit in Greensboro, authorities said.
Perkins collided into the rear of a vehicle in which the brothers were backseat passengers.
Daryl, a freshman at Reynolds High School, died that day. Isaiah, a sixth-grader at Downtown Middle School, died two days later. Their mother, Janet Baucum Reynolds Payne, and their stepbrother, Jared Baucum, were also injured.
In February 2011, Perkins pleaded guilty and received a 75-day jail sentence, suspended for 18 months, and was ordered to pay a $750 fine.
Perkins, of Arkansas, pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor death by motor vehicle, and careless and reckless driving, Under state sentencing laws at that time, Perkins could not have been sentenced to active jail time because she had no criminal record.
Soon after his sons' deaths, Daryl Reynolds lobbied state legislators to pass a law to ban cellphone use while driving.
More problems than resolutions?
Banning the use of wireless communication devices has its detractors.
During the debate on HB144, some legislators expressed concerns that it would create more problems than it resolves.
For example, Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, said that pulling off to the side of a two-lane road to answer the phone "may be more dangerous than holding a cellphone to your ear," especially for young drivers.
Some legislators complained about the bill being another extension of "nanny state" efforts that take away individual freedoms.
Other legislators asked if the bill requires law enforcement officers to prove that someone was driving in a distracted manner, whether while using an electronic device or eating, if the item is not in the driver's hand when they are stopped.
Some expressed concerns that these kinds of traffic stops could lead to unintended uncomfortable conversations as the law-enforcement officer attempts to prove illegal behavior.
Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said SB20 "is unlikely to face a vocal, organized opposition.
"Instead, it could face behind-the-scenes skepticism from lawmakers who believe it's not the government's proper role to put this type of restriction in place.
"Satisfaction with the status quo has been this legislation's biggest obstacle over the years. Perhaps that has changed in 2021," Kokai said. "But history suggests the bill will face an uphill battle."
Burgin said his answer to concerns about overreach is providing more education about the necessity of SB20.
"I think the bill is very timely, and we can explain the benefits to society," Burgin said.
"I'm about as conservative as you can be and I don't like the government telling me how to live my life.
"This is one of those bills that can save some lives, property damages, and long-term pain and suffering," Burgin said.