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States Toughen Hands-Free Laws, Close Enforcement Loopholes

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Texting while driving

Don’t take talking and texting rules too lightly. As data continues to stream in about the dangers of hand-held cell phone distraction, state legislators—and highway patrols—are getting tough.

The first round of cell phone-related distraction laws were, in some states, vague and poorly crafted when it comes to texting, and how people today use smartphones. And that meant that a lot of offenders were let go with only a warning.

But the days of lax enforcement might be over. In New York—which is already one of the few strictest states that apply points to offenders’ driving records—Governor Andrew Cuomo recently introduced a bill aimed at toughening the language in its cell phone law—including closing some loopholes and upping the penalties. Making distracted driving a primary offense is one of the most significant changes of the new bill.

Oregon just this week finished fixing its own flawed hands-free law, which allowed a very generous loophole for hand-held use if the talking or texting was done when they were driving for work and “acting in the scope” of their employment. Police weren’t happy with how hard it was to ticket drivers for legitimate distraction offenses, and nearly everyone, it seems, in these days of taking your work on your smartphone, could contest a ticket with the right argument.

In the rewritten version of the Oregon bill, which passed the state legislature this week and is to be signed by governor Kitzhaber—to take effect at the beginning of 2012—the language gets more specific about texting, and it makes exceptions on hand-held use only for police, emergency vehicles, utility crews, tow trucks, and certain types of agricultural vehicles.

Neighboring Washington is one state that amped up its cell phone law a year ago, making it a primary offense; this past week, the Washington State Patrol reported that it’s issued about five times as many tickets—6,850 citations in the past year—for the issue than when it was a secondary offense. The citation rate has risen, too, with fewer pulled-over motorists receiving just a recorded warning. Even in Washington, though, just as in most other states with a primary law, cell phone distraction citations still don’t go on the driver’s permanent record.

That’s the next step. If cell phone-related distraction is as dangerous as safety organizations say—handheld users are four times more likely to be in a serious accident, according to the IIHS—and if licensing point systems red-flag speeders and red-light runners to insurance companies, why shouldn’t they indicate chronic distraction?

[StreetsBlog; Seattle Times; The Oregonian]

This story originally appeared at The Car Connection

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