Bill eases distracted driving violations

BATON ROUGE — Though texting while driving is illegal, law enforcement officers face difficulties in pulling over distracted drivers. A bill passed by a Senate committee Thursday would make it easier for police to issue citations by expanding the list of prohibited cellular activities, like taking “selfies” and checking social media sites, in an attempt to decrease traffic accidents.

Law-enforcement authorities say that under current law, they cannot ticket drivers who insist that they were using their phones for something other than texting.

So under the bill, simply holding a device in either or both hands would be against the law at the start of next year.

The bill, written by Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, would prohibit the use of wireless telecommunication devices in moving vehicles unless the driver uses hands-free technology.

“Currently our state is 49th in the U.S. for the most distracted drivers,” Huval said. “We’re the seventh highest for traffic fatalities in the United States.”

“If people know something is not enforceable, they will continue to do it,” Huval added

Current school zone laws forbid an individual from accessing social networking sites while driving, manually entering a name or number to initiate a call, texting or using a phone camera to take a picture or video.

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee, would extend school zone laws to the entire state.

The bill now heads to the Senate floor. The House previously passed the bill with a 53-34 vote.

“Between 60 and 80 percent of accidents are caused by distracted driving,” Huval said.

A first citation warrants a fee of up to $125, while the second violation is punishable by a fine of up to $250. Subsequent violations are punishable by fines up to $250 as well and suspension of the violator’s driver’s license for a 15-day period.

Several Louisiana residents testified in support of the bill after losing loved ones in accidents initiated by distracted drivers that were on their phones.

Suzanne Salter lost her daughter to an accident on a straight highway involving a driver who was texting. The driver, Salter said, “didn’t even know she was driving in the left lane. She didn’t even know what she hit.”