Cell phone driving ban stalls in Michigan; critics say plan too harsh
- Bill to ban cell phone usage while driving gets more opposition than support
- Critics say proposal is too punitive, disproportionately affects low-income residents
- Because of a parliamentary move, Democrats could try again with the measure
LANSING — A bipartisan effort to require hands-free phone use while driving has stalled in Michigan, after lawmakers worried the legislation would disproportionately target low-income and rural residents.
After passing a House Transportation Committee with unanimous support last week, House Bill 4250 — the first piece of the three-bill package — failed to gain the simple majority vote in the 110-member House on Tuesday afternoon.
At least 57 members, both Democrats and Republicans, voted against the bill. House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, moved to “clear the board” before the votes were final — a technique to delay the official vote on the matter.
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The bills would make Michigan the 26th state with hand-held electronic device bans for drivers, following Ohio, which just implemented a similar ban earlier this month.
The legislation would expand Michigan’s current ban on texting while driving and strengthen penalties for violations.
Currently, drivers caught texting on the road in Michigan face $100 fines for the first offense and $200 for every violation thereafter.
The bills would prohibit drivers from using electronic devices in most cases, such as calling, texting, recording or viewing videos, accessing social media and more.
The ban would not apply to emergency calls or hands-free use of navigation services. Law enforcement officials, emergency responders and drivers of “automated motor vehicles” would be exempt from the prohibitions. Two-way radio devices, CB or ham radios and electronic medical devices such as insulin pumps would also continue to be allowed under the legislation.
Under the bill, violations are treated as civil infractions and subject to fines, with higher fines of up to $500 per violation for drivers of school buses or commercial vehicles. Additionally, points could be assessed on a driver records, and a judge could even suspend a regular offender’s license for up to 90 days under the legislation.
Rep. Dylan Wegela, a Garden City Democrat who voted against the legislation Tuesday, told Bridge Michigan he’s concerned the bill is “punitive” and would disproportionately affect low-income residents, who have a harder time affording hands-free technologies.
“The idea of suspending somebody’s license for 90 days proposes a lot of different problems in a state that has little to no public transportation,” he added.
Additionally, he said he is worried law enforcement could “abuse” the power under the legislation and make more traffic stops.
Rep. Alicia St. Germaine, a Harrison Township Republican on the House Transportation Committee, voted for the legislation last week but voted against it Tuesday afternoon. Two others — Reps. John Roth, R-Interlochen, and Tom Kunse, R-Clare — also flipped their votes Tuesday.
St. Germaine told Bridge she supports the concept, but worries points on a driving record would raise their insurance rates.
“In Michigan, we have the highest rates in auto insurance as it is,” she said.
Rep. Matt Koleszar, a Plymouth Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill package, said the bills are necessary to save lives, citing an increase in annual distracted driving-related crashes nationwide.
“We absolutely can and need to do better,” he said on the floor.
Some studies have shown that such bans have reduced cell phone usage on the road, although it is unclear if they reduced crash risks, according to the nonprofit research group Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which tracks distracted driving-related laws in all states.
In 2021, 16,543 crashes in Michigan — or 5.9 percent of all crashes statewide — involved at least one distracted driver, according to a state report earlier this year. In 2020, 14,236 crashes statewide — or 5.8 percent of all crashes — were related to distracted driving.
Between 2016 and 2019, an average of 5.6 percent of all car crashes in Michigan were distracted driving-related, and crashes involving distracted drivers were more severe than those that did not, according to an analysis by the Center for the Management of Information for Safe and Sustainable Transportation and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
Nationally, an average of nine people are killed in distracted driving-related crashes every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 32,400 people died in distracted driving-related crashes between 2011 and 2020, according to a state analysis of statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
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