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'Hand-held phone ban' bill sparks debate

Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, proposed a bill to create fines for drivers holding a phone even if they are not texting. (Photo by Allison Kadlubar / LSU Manship School News Service)

BATON ROUGE — Lawmakers tangled Monday over whether to create a new set of fines for holding a phone while driving even if the driver is not texting.

The “hand-held phone ban” bill would allow law enforcement to fine drivers seen with a phone in hand while behind the wheel.

“This is trying to promote safe driving,” the author of the bill, state Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, said.

The fine would be lower than the $175 to $500 for a texting-and-driving citation. The new fine would range from $50 to $100 and may include a maximum of 15 hours of community service for a first offense.

The House postponed a vote on the bill as lawmakers questioned how it would be enforced and whether it would discriminate against poorer people with the most basic phones.

State Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, said the bill targets lower-income communities.

“It will not be possible to operate a cell phone in a car that doesn’t have Bluetooth,” Carter said.

Bluetooth technology helps enable hands-free phone use while driving.

Carter mentioned that he does not think that the “pay-as-you-go phones,” a type of phone that has a prepaid number of caller minutes found at many stores, have Bluetooth capability, so people who have these phones would be unable to use them while driving.

Carter said about 60 percent of people in his district make less than the region's median income. So, a person who cannot afford a phone with Bluetooth capabilities would not be able to communicate with another person without holding the phone in hand.

“Do you believe this discriminates against the poor people who cannot afford Bluetooth or phones with one of the national networks?” Carter asked Huval.

Huval said his bill would not discriminate against anyone, protecting all ages, races and classes. He also said that there is an app on phones that will allow voice operation without Bluetooth, but he was unsure if this is applicable to the prepaid phones.

Carter described the bill as being more advantageous to individuals who can afford cars and phones with Bluetooth or Apple CarPlay options.

Apple CarPlay allows drivers to use navigational features, click on texts, answer phone calls or change songs via a display screen operated through voice commands or manually.

“I’m not big on voice commands ... I prefer the old fashion way of searching it or hitting it,” state Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, said. “There is no prohibition on reaching toward the center console of a screen and trying to dial numbers and look up contacts and respond to text messages if the functionality is available, is that correct?”

Huval said a driver can use Apple Carplay, adding research indicates it could be safer than looking down and holding a wireless phone.

Almost 800,000 people drive while holding their cell phones during the day, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We are trying to get so detailed and prescriptive on what government doesn’t allow, we may be falling short,” Ivey said.

The House favored an amendment by state Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, to lower the proposed fine to $100 from $300 to keep more people out of jail who might not be able to afford the higher fine.

The bill passed in the House Transportation Committee last week where similar tensions arose.

Huval proposed a similar bill last year. The House passed it, but the Senate rejected it, concerned that it could hurt minorities.

Huval decided Monday to edit the bill and present it to the House again later.


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