Cell phone use while driving ban fails

Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, listens as Shelley Forney speaks in support of his legislation that sought to ban most uses of cell phones while driving. The bill failed in the House Transportation and Energy Committee on March 12. Photo by Vic Vela
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Vic Vela
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An effort to ban most cell phone uses while driving failed in a House committee on March 12.

The bill would have prohibited motorists from talking on cell phones unless they were using hands-free devices. The legislation also would have created tougher penalties for drivers who talk on their cell phones in school zones and construction areas, and would have banned phone gadgets from being used while behind the wheel, such as web surfing and applications.

Text messaging while driving is already illegal in Colorado.

But Democrats and Republicans alike expressed a myriad of concerns about the bill. Some said that the measure would lead to potential enforceability issues for law enforcement, while others didn't think the proposed penalties went far enough.

Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, the bill sponsor, told the House Transportation and Energy Committee that, “at any given time, 9 percent of drivers are on their cell phones, so the likelihood of crashes increases.”

“We want to encourage people to put the phone down and put their hands on the wheel and focus on the road,” Melton said.

Melton's effort was highlighted by emotional testimony on behalf of his bill from a Fort Collins woman whose daughter was killed by a driver who was distracted by her phone.

Shelley Forney wept as she told the story of her 9-year-old daughter Erica, who was riding on her bike, on her way home from school in 2008. A driver – who was talking on her cell phone – became distracted and veered into the bike lane, striking the girl and causing her body to flip eight feet in the air before landing on the windshield.

The girl died two days later.

“She had a life that was taken from her for something that should have never happened,” Forney said.

Forney is a constituent of Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins. Her testimony caused Fisher to choke back tears and to thank her for her courage in fighting for the legislation before he voted in favor of the bill.

But other lawmakers on the committee expressed concern with the bill before testimony ever began.

Rep. Ray Scott, D-Grand Junction, wondered how police could possibly enforce the law with their limited officer resources, with so many drivers using cell phones these days.

And Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Douglas County, said it doesn't take a cell phone to distract a driver. She said that a crying child or changing radio stations also can lead to accidents.

“There's a lot of things that affect distracted drivers,” she said. “I don't understand why we're focusing just on a cell phone.”

It wasn't just Republicans who had concerns. Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, who also voted no, wasn't fond of the law's penalty structure, telling Melton that they “don't go far enough.”

The bill would have created a “primary offense” for drivers who use their cell phones through school zones and construction areas, meaning police could impose a citation for the mere act of being on the phone. But, in all other cases, violating the cell phone law would have only resulted in a “secondary offense,” meaning drivers could only be cited for talking on their cell phones so long as they were initially stopped for another violation.

The bill's maximum fines for violations would have been $50 for the first offense and $100 for the second.

Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, also voted no. She was concerned that the law would hurt ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, where drivers rely on cell phone applications to pick up drivers.

“I don't know if we fully know what the scope of this is,” she said of the legislation.

But Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, the committee chairman, voted in favor of the measure. He took issue with a comment that was made by Scott, who talked about the difficulty of legislating “personal responsibility.”

“I don't think we're talking about personal responsibility,” Tyler said. “I think we're talking about personal actions, which we legislate all the time.”

The bill failed in the committee following a 7-6 vote. However, the committee did not vote to officially kill the legislation this session, meaning Melton could still make changes and bring the effort back this year, if he chooses to do so.