Alabama lawmakers propose ban on driving while holding cell phone

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The Alabama House of Representatives meets on Jan. 8, 2019, during its organizational session. Lawmakers can now pre-file bills for the regular session, which starts March 5. (Mike Cason | [email protected])

By AL.COM

Alabama lawmakers are proposing legislation that would ban holding a cell phone while driving.

Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, filed a bill this week, the first opportunity for lawmakers to formally submit bills in advance of the legislative session, which starts March 5. Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, is sponsoring a similar bill in the Senate.

Alabama law currently bans texting while driving but does not ban holding a phone while driving.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have bans on holding a phone while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. One of those is Georgia, where the law took effect in July 2018.

Farley and McClendon said their bills are based on the law in Georgia.

“The purpose is very simple but it’s extremely serious,” Farley said. “It would hopefully save lives.”

Farley’s bill would make it illegal to drive and “physically hold or otherwise support with any part of the person’s body a wireless telecommunication device or standalone electronic device.”

A first offense would make the driver subject to a $50 fine. The fine would be $100 for a second offense and $150 for third and subsequent offenses.

Farley, who worked in law enforcement for 37 years, said the sight of drivers using their phones or texting while driving has become all too common on highways.

“They’ll be traveling 80 miles an hour or so and you’ll see the cell phone glow where they’re looking down and texting or reading a text,” Farley said.

Farley said his decision to sponsor the legislation was prompted, in part, by a fatal accident on Interstate 65 last year. A Thompson High School student died when her car crashed into a tractor-trailer near the Pelham exit. Authorities said she was texting when the accident happened. Farley said the student was a friend of his granddaughter.

Farley said he plans to obtain statistics on how hand-held bans have affected distracted driving accident rates in other states. He said that information will be an important part of the debate over his bill.

“If we need to discuss it further and tweak it and change it a little bit, that’s fine,” Farley said. “But let’s get it out there and start the conversation.”

Farley’s bill includes several exceptions to the ban, such as for making calls to law enforcement or for other emergencies.

McClendon said he sponsored the bill to ban texting while driving that passed several years ago but said it has not been especially effective. He said the hand-held ban will be more enforceable.

“It will much easier to see if someone has a phone in their hand than to be able to tell what they’re doing with that phone,” McClendon said.

The senator said he talked to the sponsor of the Georgia bill and has been told the new law is already showing results in reducing accidents. He said he knows from experience there will be resistance to changing the law in Alabama. He said it took six years to pass the texting ban.

“The fact is, it really hasn’t been that effective because enforcement is difficult with that bill,” McClendon said. “But that’s all we could get through at the time. That was the best we could do. But now we’ve at least got a model.”

McClendon said his bill includes a provision that allows first-time offenders to have the charge dismissed if they present to the judge evidence that they’ve obtained a Bluetooth or other device that allows them to make hands-free calls and text messages.