Whitmer, advocates seek hand-held phones ban while driving

This Jan. 9, 2020 photo shows Bonnie Raffaele of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., with a photo of her late daughter, Kelsey, 17, who died while using her cellphone while driving in 2010. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and safety advocates want to combat distracted driving by restricting the use of cellphones, though pending legislation does not go as far as what she proposed in 2019. (Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press via AP)



Associated Press

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and safety advocates want to combat distracted driving by restricting the use of cellphones, though pending legislation does not go as far as what she proposed nearly a year ago.

The bill would prohibit motorists under 18 from using a phone while operating a vehicle, except in emergencies. Adults, however, would be exempt from the ban that already applies to drivers with a learner’s or intermediate permit — typically 15- and 16-year-olds.

Twenty-one states bar hand-held phone use by all motorists, including five that have passed laws since Whitmer called for a universal hands-free law in her first State of the State speech 11 months ago.

“It is time for us to join that group,” she said this past week in Detroit, where she was joined by activists including the parents of teens who were killed in crashes caused by distracted driving. “We must work together to get this done.”

While the Democratic governor supports limiting hand-held phone use by all drivers, the Republican-led Legislature appears much less open to including adults. The House last month passed a stripped-down measure that would essentially expand the prohibition to 17-year-olds. The bill, which would also eliminate an exception that lets those with graduated level 1 and 2 licenses use a voice-activated phone system in the car, was referred to a Senate committee on Wednesday.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” the sponsor, Democratic Rep. Mari Manoogian of Birmingham, said of the measure advancing. “But we absolutely do need to expand this legislation to include everyone. It will make it easier for law enforcement to enforce this law. It will make our drivers safer regardless of age.”

Michigan had about 19,000 crashes involving distracted driving in 2018, which resulted in 77 fatalities. The year before, there were roughly 20,000 such crashes and 72 fatalities.

Among those backing the legislation is Bonnie Raffaele of Sault Ste. Marie, whose 17-year-old daughter Kelsey was driving home from a friend’s house and chatting on her cellphone when she crashed, ending her life at age 17 in 2010. The law that applies to motorists with level 1 and level 2 licenses is named for Kelsey.

Raffaele said she speaks about distracted driving at schools and driver education courses, and “the kids are getting it.” Teens have told her about taking the phone away from a parent who uses it while driving.

“The people that are not getting it are the adults. Those statistics are ticking up and up and up, and that’s why we need a hands-free bill for everyone in the state of Michigan,” she said.

The effort has support from law enforcement but has run into resistance from some Republicans who have bigger legislative priorities, think the current restrictions are adequate or who do not want government interfering further with drivers’ choices.

Two related GOP-sponsored bills cleared committees last year but may never be voted on by the full House. One would extend Michigan’s texting-while-driving ban to also prohibit the use of electronic devices to read or post on social media, play video games, take photos and record video except with hands-free technology. The other would increase the fine for violators to $250, from $100, for a first offense and to $500, from $200, for a second or subsequent infraction.

Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering, said the bill sponsors were working to answer colleagues’ questions and to look for potential improvements.

“For now, they’re not ready to move just yet,” he said. It is not immediately clear when the Senate may consider the legislation to bar phone use by all motorists under 18.