RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Weeks after North Carolina House members watered down a distracted driving bill, state senators want to restore robust language that would prohibit drivers from holding their cellphones.
Republican lawmakers and parents of children who died in distracted driving accidents held a news conference Tuesday to promote passage of a tougher "Hands Free NC" law. They said distracted driving is becoming more evident and the consequences are too grave not to address firmly.
"We're trying to draw attention to a very serious problem," said Sen. Jim Burgin of Harnett County, who is helping shepherd the bill in his chamber. "We want to put that still small voice in their head that when they pick up their phone they're thinking, 'I don't need to be doing this.'"
The original House measure, largely modeled after a new law in Georgia, would make it illegal for nearly all drivers to hold wireless devices or cradle them against their shoulder. Violators would face $100 fines that grow to $200 with penalties on insurance records for repeat offenders. Law enforcement and first responders would be exempt.
Ultimately the House altered that bill to make hand-held cellphone use unlawful only when authorities determined it contributed to careless or reckless driving. That came after Rep. Kevin Corbin of Macon County, the House bill's chief sponsor, said House Speaker Tim Moore wanted language to address "a broader array of safe-driving distractions."
The rewrite appeared to satisfy few people, either by lacking teeth or by inserting the government into people's lives. Still, it passed before a key deadline, with promises that the language again would be modified.
Burgin said he envisioned returning the House language largely intact when it came before a Senate committee. But he also suggested offering a possible warning for a first-time violator and the ability for repeat offenders to take a class to avoid insurance points.
Tammy Garlock's 17-year-old son died in a 2008 Charlotte-area accident when the teen tried to make a cellphone call. Garlock said at the news conference a law was needed to "ultimately reduce crashes and save lives" and that the original House bill is "very specific and concise."
North Carolina has had a prohibition on texting or emailing while driving since 2009, and drivers under 18 can't use mobile phones at all. But that's not enough now that "we're all basically carrying computers in our pockets now," Garlock said.
"It is time to take action," she said. Any approved Senate version would have to be accepted by the House, or lead to negotiations.
The legislation may not stop all distracted driving but it will make people accountable, said Tasha Hairston-Springs of Winston-Salem, who was seriously injured during a 2012 wreck when she drove into an overpass at 70 mph (113 kph) while texting with her daughter.
"My message to everybody is to think about what you're doing when you're in your car," Hairston-Springs said. "It can happen to anybody."