FRANKFORT — Legislation that bans all drivers from text messaging while behind the wheel and outlaws any cell phone use by drivers under the age of 18 cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday.
House Bill 43, sponsored by Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, passed the House Transportation Committee 18-7 but not before generating questions and comments from many committee members. Some expressed concern that the bill didn't treat all driving distractions in the same way.
Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, questioned why the bill allowed drivers to check global positioning systems on their phones. And he didn't like that it exempted law enforcement agents from the texting ban.
"It's not going to stop 'Joe Police Officer' for getting a text from his wife telling him to bring bread home when the guy at the light next to him can't," DeCesare said.
Chuck Geveden, director of the Transportation Cabinet's office of highway safety, said the exemption is meant to allow officers and emergency personnel to use in-car computers, which often are used for dispatching them to calls.
Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, said he was disappointed the bill applies the ban to drivers who are stopped in traffic back-ups. He suggested a provision that would limit the ban to vehicles in motion.
Richards said he would listen to the concerns of those who had reservations about specific provisions.
He said the legislation has received widespread support, including from some high school students who wouldn't be able to talk on cell phones while driving.
If a new driver is caught texting — or talking on a cell phone if under 18 — during the 180-day probationary period, that probation clock would start over again, according to the bill.
Drivers who violate the bill would be fined from $20 to $100, starting in 2011, Richards said. Violators would not be charged court fees.
Richards said 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed similar bills. He said texting while driving can be several times more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.
Last year, 45 percent of the 126,091 crashes on Kentucky roadways were caused by distraction, inattention or cell phone use, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. Those figures include more than 200 fatal crashes.
Richards' bill heads to the full House. It made it through committee the same day U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued a ban on texting for drivers of buses and large commercial trucks.
The issue has support in the state Senate and from Gov. Steve Beshear, who has barred state employees from texting while driving.
Sen. Denise Harper-Angel, D-Louisville, has introduced a ban on texting while driving. She said she expects to get a hearing on it next month.
Angel said she liked the provision in Richards bill that bans talking and texting for drivers under 18.
"That's really the targeted group — the inexperienced driver," she said.
In the House committee hearing, several lawmakers said they were supporting the legislation to protect family members. Rep. Marie Rader, R-McKee, dedicated her "Yes" vote to her four grandchildren.
Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, said his niece, who is under 18, has totaled two cars while texting.
"And I have a friend my age who has done the same thing," he said.
Another bill that would ban texting and talking on cell phones by all drivers failed to pass the committee minutes later.
That bill — HB 232 — attracted just six votes. Most of the committee members voted "pass" instead of yes or no.