Hands-Free Bills Advance in Colorado, Michigan

Published July 1, 2009

Lawmakers in Colorado and Michigan are considering bills mandating the use of hands-free devices when talking on cell phones while driving.

The Colorado bill (HB 09-1094) was expected to reach the desk of an amenable Gov. Bill Ritter (D) by summer. A slate of three bills to mandate hands-free cell phones in vehicles was moving through the Michigan legislature at press time.

But AAA, one of the largest and most-respected drivers’ organizations in America, opposes hands-free mandates. The group officially encourages lawmakers to pursue comprehensive distracted-driving legislation covering a range of distracting behaviors that can cause drivers to commit traffic violations or otherwise endanger themselves and others.

“AAA supports enhanced penalties for drivers who cause crashes or otherwise commit traffic violations as a result of engaging in distracting behavior while driving,” said Justin McNaull, director of state relations for Heathrow, Florida-based AAA. “Driving is a heavily regulated activity with rules that cover what and how we drive, as well as who may drive.”

Hands-free mandates have caught on in recent years, becoming law in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and the District of Colombia. A handful of cities across the country, including Chicago, also have imposed bans.

Police Organizations Divided

Trooper Chris Hawkins of the executive division of the Michigan State Police says his state’s largest law enforcement organization opposes hands-free mandates.

“The Michigan State Police does not actively support a law that would ban all cell phone use in vehicles,” Hawkins said. “We believe there are many activities that qualify as ‘distracted driving,’ such as talking on a cell phone, eating, or putting on makeup. All are dangerous and should be avoided while operating a motor vehicle.”

Trooper David Hall, public information officer for the Colorado State Police, disagrees.

“We support anything that makes roads safer,” Hall said. “More people die on America’s roads than soldiers fighting in Iraq. When [soldiers] die they make the news, but people dying on roadways do not. It does not affect us unless a loved one is killed or hurt.

“When we let people do what they want, it creates a public-safety problem. People talking on the cell phone while driving [are] not only a danger to themselves but to others who are obeying the law,” Hall added.

Hawkins says new laws aren’t needed and can’t be customized to cover all dangerous activities.

“We feel that when these activities impact an operator’s ability to drive, we have adequate punishments already,” Hawkins added. “It is exceedingly difficult for legislators to create an all-encompassing list of potentially distracting behaviors that are illegal and should be outlawed.”

Hawkins noted a bill moved through the Michigan legislature that banned tying a necktie while driving but did not ban untying a necktie or tying one’s shoes while operating a vehicle.

Complicating Factors

 “AAA strives to be the voice of the American motorist and supports the broad right of law-abiding drivers to travel America’s roadways without interference,” said McNaull. “That said, AAA also considers the operation of a motor vehicle upon public roadways to be a privilege, not a right. Drivers should be licensed. Speed limits should be set. Traffic signals must be honored.

“While AAA remains vigilant against oppressive, unfair, and ineffectual laws, AAA also recognizes that traffic codes are in place to preserve the efficiency of American roads and the safety of all motorists,” McNaull added.

Down on Drivers

Michigan attorney Ronald A. Steinberg said the notion drivers can safely operate a vehicle while talking on a cell phone—even with a hands-free device—is “beyond ridiculous.” But there are many distractions working against drivers, he observed.

“People who listen to music and drive can become distracted enough,” Steinberg said. “People who get mentally involved with talk shows and drive can become distracted enough.”

As a result, Steinberg said, “Drivers cannot be ‘as free as they wish,’ because they are operating more than one ton of metal which can operate at speeds sufficient to cause death and destruction. They are not as responsible as they should be, even at present.”

Hall agrees with the call for mandates. “There is a constant balance between a free society and establishing a set of rules to guide that society and protect them safely.”

Steinberg would opt for stringent penalties. “Personally, I think that anyone who is so selfish as to act with indifference to the rights of others deserves severe criminal penalties,” he said. “Our society is too flawed to allow people like that to run loose in the streets. Public policy should be to protect the public, even if we must protect the public from themselves.”

Questioning Effectiveness

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Arlington, Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said those who use cell phones without hands-free devices are engaging in risky behavior. That doesn’t mean, however, there should be a law against it, he said.

“The institute’s research indicates that drivers are four times more likely to be in an injury crash if they’re using a cell phone,” Rader said. “While the research shows it’s risky, it’s not clear that laws—absent vigorous, visible, and sustained enforcement—will have much effect on driver behavior.”

Tabassum Rahmani
([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.