ND ban sought on 'distracted driving'

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakotans who send text messages while they drive are as dangerous as drunks, a legislator said Thursday, as lawmakers disagreed about the best way to deter motorists from the practice.

Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, asked the House Transportation Committee on Thursday to endorse a bill he is sponsoring that would specifically ban texting while driving.

First-time offenders would be fined $100 and assessed two penalty points on their driver's license, while multiple violations would carry tougher penalties and the possibility of a yearlong license suspension.

The committee's chairman, Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, has introduced alternative legislation to prohibit "distracted driving." A distraction is roughly defined as something that requires drivers to take their eyes off the road, although electronic navigation devices would be exempted.

Under Ruby's bill, violators would be fined $100 but would not have any license penalty points assessed. Law officers could ticket someone for distracted driving only if they pull the driver over for another offense first, Ruby's legislation says.

The "secondary enforcement" provision is similar to language in North Dakota law that requires drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts. A law enforcement officer cannot pull over an adult motorist who is seen driving without a seat belt; the person must first be observed committing another traffic violation, such as speeding or running a stop sign.

The committee did not act on either bill Thursday.

Klemin, whose proposal to ban texting while driving was defeated in the 2009 Legislature, said during Thursday's hearing that he believed the practice was especially dangerous and deserved its own penalty in state law. Since lawmakers rejected a statewide ban two years ago, the cities of Bismarck and Grand Forks have approved local ordinances to ban texting while driving.

Thirty states ban texting while driving, including 11 that approved the restriction last year, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

"This is something that we can no longer ignore in North Dakota," Klemin said. "We now have the functional equivalent of a large number of drunken drivers on the road."

His legislation would ban drivers from using cell phones for a number of tasks, including typing or reading text messages or e-mail and checking the Internet. It does not ban talking on a cell phone while driving.

Klemin was quizzed about whether North Dakota's laws against reckless or careless driving could be applied to texting while driving. Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, said he had reservations about singling out texting drivers.

"We have a whole lot of issues having to do with distracted driving, and I think this focuses on one," Weisz said. "That's one of my major concerns."

An insurance industry study released in September found that the number of crashes actually increased in three of four states it studied that had enacted texting bans. Critics complained the study from the Highway Loss Data Institute didn't distinguish between crashes caused by distracted driving and those involving foul weather or other factors.

Ruby said he believed a broader approach was preferable.

"One thing that frustrated me . was, if you're reading this (while driving), it's illegal," Ruby said, holding up a cell phone. "If you're reading this," he continued, holding up a paper copy of his bill, "it's not."

Klemin's legislation attracted a number of supporters to Thursday's hearing, including Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm and Carrie Sandstrom, a Bismarck Century High School junior who said Bismarck's city ordinance against texting while driving — which carries a $50 fine — motivated her to quit.

"As a teenager, I know that my parents don't want me to text (while driving), but I still did it until the regulations in Bismarck were passed," Sandstrom said. "I can text without looking. I can text in class. I could have been texting during this entire hearing."

Klemin's bill is HB1195. Ruby's bill is HB1190.