Woman using cell phone while driving

The Colorado state Senate Transportation & Energy Committee on Thursday delayed action on a bill that would require drivers to either use a mounted device for holding mobile phones or keep both hands on the steering wheel.

Senate Bill 12 is sponsored by Senate President Pro tem Lois Court of Denver, and 2019 marks her third attempt in as many sessions to get drivers to stop using cars as "mobile phone booths," as she sees it.

The bill would up the fines for distracted driving tied to holding cellphones while a vehicle is in motion, to $300 and four points on the license for a first offense, and it goes up for subsequent violations. 

Court told the committee Thursday that her bill would not prohibit the use of a cellphone while driving. The bill would apply only when the car is in motion and when a driver is holding a cellphone in his or her hands.

It also would apply to other electronic devices, such as laptops, tablets, computers, electronic games, taking photos and the like. "To activate it, go for it. Don't be holding it," she told the committee.

The bill would exempt first responders and those reporting road rage, for example, and truckers, for whom federal law is more strict. It also would not allow law enforcement to seize the device, she said.

The committee Thursday heard from 40 witnesses, most in favor of the bill.

But Tristan Gorman of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar warned that the bill would disproportionately impact the working poor and could lead to racial profiling.

The fines and points in the bill are excessive and unnecessary, Gorman said, pointing out that the bill makes the offense a class two traffic misdemeanor, which even for a first offense could mean up to 90 days in jail. It's being equated with more serious offenses, such as reckless driving that results in bodily injury or even death, she said.

Denise Maes of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said she acknowledged the problems of texting and driving. It's dangerous and there's not much disagreement about it, she said. But the bill is too broad, and no state in the country bans it in this way. 

The approach should be to get the private sector involved, Maes said, to find a way to ensure that phones don't work while a car is in motion.

Susan Dane, representing Coloradans Organized for Responsible Driving, said her group was formed after a couple on a motorcycle was killed by a driver who was looking down at a text. The law has not kept up with technology, she told the committee.

Sixteen states have similar laws, 10 others are considering it, and she said she doesn't want Colorado, which she called a progressive state, to be the last. 

Bicycle Colorado's Jack Todd also testified in favor of the bill. "When I'm biking or walking to work, all I want to do is get where I'm going safely," Todd said. But all too often, he said, he has to slam on his bicycle brakes when he has the right of way, to see a driver looking up from a cell phone screen.

Bob Frank, who operates a motorcycle training school, said that in the last 17 months, he's been hit four times (driving a Ford F250 pickup, not a small vehicle) by distracted drivers who were on their cellphones. In three of those accidents, he was at a full stop.

While Frank would prefer a carrot to a stick, "it amazes me that we don't have more enforcement." 

Chris Johnson, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado association, also spoke in favor of the bill. Using cellphones is a habitual behavior, like smoking, he said, and the behavior won't change once a person gets behind the wheel of a car without an incentive to do otherwise.

But committee members had reservations about the bill's penalties. That included Democratic Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood, who pointed out that no one believes the problem doesn't exist; she recently had surgery to deal with the consequences of a texting driver, she said. But the question is whether the solution will address the issue, whether it's a fair solution, and whether it will change behavior, she said.

Republican Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson added that people who don't follow the rules won't follow this rule, either. The bill has merit, he said, but the question is how high the penalty should be.

"I am adamant that we have to address this problem. ... We have to get a hold on this and cannot leave it as is," Court said.

But she also agreed to work with the committee members on amendments. As a result, the committee did not vote on the bill Thursday and will bring it back at a later date.

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