Woman using cell phone while driving

A bill that would fine motorists who hold cellphones or other mobile devices while driving was approved — albeit a slightly diluted version — by the Colorado state Senate on Friday with a bipartisan 26-9 vote.

As introduced, Senate Bill 12 would have hefty fines against motorists who hold cellphones while in traffic, a form of distracted driving, according to its sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem Lois Court of Denver.

However, she received pushback, even from her own party, on the measure's high fines: $300 and four points on the license for a first offense, $500 and six points for a second, and up to $750 and eight points for a third or subsequent. 

The bill was amended in two committee hearings, dropping the fine down to $50 and two points for a first offense, $150 and four points for a second, and $300 and four points for a third or subsequent offense.

Senate Bill 12 doesn't strictly prohibit cellphone use in a car, as Court explained it during debate on Thursday. A cellphone in a hands-free accessory would be okay, as would activating a call, for example. Emergency use also would be allowed.

The proposed law also requires that a law enforcement officer actually see someone using a cellphone to cite that driver.

A driver at a red light or otherwise stopped or parked could not be cited for using a cellphone, either.

State law already bans cellphone use while driving for those 18 and under.

Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose is one of two members of the Senate who holds a commercial driving license (Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling is the other). The bill excludes truckers, but, as Coram and others have pointed out, federal law already comes down hard on commercial drivers who use cellphones while on the road. The fine is $2,750 for a first offense, and an employer can be fined up to $11,000, Coram explained.

Republican Sen. Dennis Hisey of Fountain offered an amendment Thursday to lower the fines even further, pointing out that newer vehicles already have some form of hands-free devices for using with cellphones. Those who are driving older vehicles will be the most impacted and less likely to be able to afford higher fines, he said.

Under Hisey's amendment, the second fine would $100 and the third and subsequent violation $200. The points assessed would drop on the second offense down to two points.

Democratic Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood also spoke in favor of the amendment, which was adopted.

"Over time, [this] will change behavior, but when we think of the cost for those in poverty, $50 or $100 is still a lot," especially when the increased cost of insurance is added in, she said.

On Friday, Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs noted that the laws and fines tied to drunk driving are much higher and that has yet to persuade people to stop doing it. 

But Court picked up the support of all but one Democrat from her caucus and half of the Republican caucus, including a vote in favor from Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker. Holbert explained that he's long opposed such legislation, but said he realizes how prevalent a problem driving with a cellphone has become. "I cannot in good conscience vote against this bill," he said.

The bill now heads to the House.

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