(The Center Square) – Members of the Louisiana House Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee have approved a bill to outlaw hand-held cell phones while driving, a measure experts said has reduced distracted driving in neighboring states.
The committee voted unanimously Tuesday to approve House Bill 376, sponsored by Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, to prohibit the use of cell phones while driving, with certain exceptions.
The same bill was approved by the House but fell short in the Senate during the last legislative session.
“This bill is not to keep people from using a phone when driving a vehicle. The last thing I want is to keep a young child from not being able to use a phone to call their mom or dad … or a mother who needs to call for an emergency,” Huval said.
“This is not what this bill is about. It’s trying to promote safe driving, this is all this is for.”
Provisions in the bill allow for community service, rather than a fine, for violations, and exceptions for police, firefighters and EMS workers. There’s also exceptions for reporting emergencies and crimes, life-and-death situations, and communications devices such as CB radios that are attached to a vehicle.
“We’re not doing this to give tickets. We’re not doing this to raise money,” Huval said. “If you happen to want to pay for it instead of your community service, of course, you can pay for it.”
Fines included in HB 376 range from $50 for a first offense up to $300 for a third offense.
“If the operator of a motor vehicle is involved in a crash at the time of the violation, the fine shall be equal to double the amount of the standard fine imposed,” according to the bill. “The law enforcement officer investigating the crash shall indicate on the written accident report that the operator of the motor vehicle was using a wireless telecommunications device at the time of the crash.”
The bill also includes provisions requiring police who issue tickets to record the race and ethnicity of the violator, to ensure the law doesn’t result in racial profiling. That information is forwarded to the federal government for analysis, Huval told the committee.
Jennifer Smith, CEO of stopdistractions.org, an advocacy group promoting the legislation in Louisiana and other states, explained the data collection component and other aspects in the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday.
“There’s a provision in there that has data collection on police stops, so they collect the data to track the ethnicity of the driver, racial profiling data,” Smith said. “There’s also additional search protection, so police cannot search the vehicle, the drivers, any of its passengers or the phone.
“There’s a federal grant, called the 1906 grant, that the government is really trying to promote, that they even just beefed up in the recent transportation bill,” she said. “These grants will pay for the collection and analysis of that data, but will also now pay for public education, outreach and training, so it’s a really great addition that could really help.”
Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have similar laws, and data from other states shows they are effective, Smith said.
“Georgia’s hands free law for distracted driving crashes the first year they had the law in effect in 2019, which was half the year, there was a 48% drop in distracted driving crashes,” she said. “And they saw about a seven to 12 percent drop since in all fatalities.”
Huval told the committee the bill calls for officers to issue warnings through the end of the year, to give residents time to acclimate to the change.
HB 376 is now on the House floor, where lawmakers voted 77-20 to approve a similar Huval-sponsored bill last session.