Politics & Government

Bill would prohibit drivers' cellphone use near schools, in work zones in Kentucky

Hillary Coltharp
flipped her car 3 times during a crash while texting.
Hillary Coltharp flipped her car 3 times during a crash while texting.

FRANKFORT — On Labor Day weekend in 2007, Hillary Coltharp, then 26, tried to return a text message on her cellphone while driving. She lost control of her convertible on Interstate 24 in McCracken County, resulting in a horrific crash.

The accident dramatically changed her and her family's lives. With the family's support, her story is being used today by police and public highway officials in Kentucky to urge state lawmakers to adopt tougher measures on phone usage while driving.

Although Kentucky has laws that prohibit texting while driving for everyone and the use of cellphones for drivers younger than 18, Gov. Steve Beshear is calling for "no-phone zones."

Under his proposal, no driver except those in emergency vehicles could talk on a phone while driving in school zones or highway work sites.

"Given the vulnerability of schoolchildren and construction workers, we need to consider creating 'no-phone zones' — areas where drivers aren't allowed to talk on phones while driving," Beshear said in his State of the Commonwealth Address this month.

State Rep. Terry Mills, D-Lebanon, is sponsoring House Bill 33, which has been assigned to the House Transportation Committee.

Under it, violators would have to pay $50 for the first offense of using a cellphone in school and highway work zones and $100 for any other offense. The state would give 50 percent of the fines collected to the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Kentucky.

Mills said he still was working on the bill with the state Transportation Cabinet and had not asked the House committee to consider it.

He said he wanted to make sure the legislation would not apply to emergency and public safety vehicles.

"I think we should do all we can to curb distracted driving to make our roads safer," he said.

Twenty percent of all vehicle accidents in the state are due to distracted driving, state police Commissioner Rodney Brewer said in a recent blog.

Mills said he had not talked to Beshear about the legislation, "but I was proud he mentioned it in his Commonwealth speech."

Twelve states and the District of Columbia prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cellphones while driving, says the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington. Forty-one states and the district ban text messaging for all drivers.

Texas specifically bans hand-held cellphones in school zones, and Vermont outlaws them in highway work zones.

Bill Bell, executive director of the state Transportation Cabinet's highway safety office, said distracted driving has deadly, real consequences.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011, compared to 3,092 in 2010. An additional 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011, compared to 416,000 in 2010.

Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to be involved in a serious crash, says the association.

"There are too many sad tales of deaths and injuries that could have been prevented had drivers been paying attention to the road instead of someone or something else," state Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock said in a recent publication of the state's highway traffic safety office.

According to a study by Carnegie Mellon, driving while using a cellphone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.

Maybe the scariest statistic for drivers who text comes from the U.S. Transportation Cabinet: Sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds.

That's like driving the length of an entire football field at 55 mph blind.

Hillary Coltharp's parents, Paul and Shawn Coltharp, said goodbye to her when they saw her at Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah after her crash.

Her car, traveling east on I-24, had crossed the median and rolled three times before she was thrown 75 feet from the vehicle. She landed on her head in the emergency lane of westbound I-24.

She suffered severe brain trauma, a skull fracture, a collapsed lung and multiple broken bones.

Hillary had been only 4 miles away from meeting her family at a restaurant at Kentucky Lake for dinner. She told them by phone to "go ahead and order my fried ravioli."

After hanging up on her call to her family, Hillary responded to a text from a friend and lost control of her car.

Police said she was not speeding or drinking. She was not wearing a seat belt.

For nearly five years after the crash, Hillary was in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers — primarily Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and Cardinal Hill in Lexington.

She continues therapies today and lives with her parents.

"She is doing remarkably well as a brain-injured person," said her mother, nationwide director for corporate initiatives for the American Cancer Society. "She is able to do about anything for herself, but she can't drive and has no career.

"Her attitude is one of the loneliest people in the world, but she also is most hopeful. She can be fun and funny and light-hearted, but she has stages of anger with verbal abuse and times of grief.

"I tell friends she has been like an infant growing up in fast-forward motion. She goes on date nights with us. She believes more than anybody that she is going to get well."

Shawn Coltharp said the "most important thing for her is speaking to people so this will not happen to them."

The Coltharps are working with local and state police and highway safety officials. Hillary has been the subject of newsletters, public service announcements and various other promotions.

The mother said she supports Beshear's call for "no-phone zones" in school and highway work zones.

"No family ever wants one of their loved ones hurt. This is another way to curb that hurt from happening," she said.

State Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he sympathized with the Coltharps and appreciated their call for tougher driving laws, "but government already is overly intrusive in our day-to-day lives."

Thayer said he saw Beshear's "no-phone zones" proposal as "a nonstarter" in this year's General Assembly.

"Look, I have a son who is about ready to get his driver's license and I'm frightened about the possibilities," he said. "All I know is that I teach him that when he gets in the car, he puts his cellphone in the glove box."

Thayer added, "We already have a texting ban law in Kentucky. Government is in almost every area of our lives, and I'm going to fight to make sure it doesn't increase its role."

Shawn Coltharp said she, too, was sensitive to government overreach.

"But we're talking here about a penalty of $50 for texting while driving in a school or road construction area, a move that could save lives," she said.

"It costs drivers $500 to throw a McDonald's wrapper out the window."