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The Michigan State House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives seeks to reduce acci­dents caused by dis­tracted driving by banning hand-held cell phone use for all drivers under the age of 18. | pxfuel

Dis­tracted driving, par­tic­u­larly among teens, has caught the attention of Michigan leg­is­lators, who are con­sid­ering a cell­phone-restricting bill that may soon become law.

The Michigan State House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives is seeking to reduce acci­dents caused by dis­tracted driving by banning hand-held cell­phone use for all drivers under the age of 18. 

Passed Dec. 11, 2019, by the state House, Bill No. 4181 pro­poses to expand Kelsey’s Law, which pro­hibits drivers with restricted licenses from using cell­phones while driving. Enacted in 2013, Kelsey’s Law is named after a 17-year-old girl from Sault Ste. Marie whose cell­phone use caused her fatal car accident in 2010.

Bill 4181 was referred to the Michigan Senate Com­mittee on Trans­portation and Infra­structure Jan. 8. If it passes, it will pro­hibit all drivers under the age of 18 from hand-held cell phone use, except to report a traffic accident, medical emer­gency, serious road hazard, crime, or other emer­gency. 

Pre­vi­ously, the ban applied only to drivers with levels 1 and 2 licenses, the restricted-license levels granted to new drivers. Level 1 license-holders must be super­vised by an adult age 21 or older and level 2 license-holders must not drive alone between 10 PM and 5 AM and may only drive one pas­senger under the age of 21 at a time. 

State Rep. Eric Leutheuser of Dis­trict 58 voted in favor of the bill and said it was a response to public concern about dis­tracted driving. 

“There was a push to get it done by the end of the year because dis­tracted driving is a pretty obvious problem,” he said. “Out of a host of con­ver­sa­tions, this was one that seemed to be simple and easy for people to under­stand and get behind, which is why it passed at the end of the term.” 

Leutheuser said Bill 4181 was sup­ported by both parties and by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

Beginning in 2001, when New York became the first state to pro­hibit cell­phone use while driving, states have imposed various restric­tions on cell­phone use in an attempt to prevent acci­dents caused by dis­tracted driving. 

Between 2013 and 2017, dis­tracted driving accounted for 2.95% of fatal car crashes in Michigan. With 209 fatal dis­tracted-driving-induced acci­dents, the state ranked 44th for dis­tracted-driving deaths in the same period.

Hillsdale Police Chief Scott Hephner said dis­tracted teenage drivers have caused several acci­dents in Hillsdale, and he heartily sup­ports Bill 4181.

“Any­thing we can do to curb dis­tracted driving is helpful,” he said. “My per­sonal opinion is that we’re still behind other states, where no one can operate a phone while driving a vehicle.” 

Hephner said it’s impos­sible to prove just how many acci­dents are caused by dis­tracted driving, and that mul­ti­tasking drivers endanger everyone on the road. He recounted a single day in which dis­tracted drivers over the age of 18 were respon­sible for two serious acci­dents in Hillsdale, both of which resulted in per­sonal injury.

“We absolutely have to keep young people safe,” he said. “I’m all for it, all in on it. But that was an oppor­tunity to expand it for everyone.”

Hephner said he hopes it will soon be illegal for anyone to use a cell­phone while driving in Michigan. 

Cur­rently, 20 states outlaw the use of hand-held cell­phones while driving. In 2016, the Michigan State Police added a dis­tracted driving field to police accident report forms, which enables the state to track the number of car crashes attrib­utable to drivers’ cell­phone use.

Hon­orable Judge Sara Lisznyai sup­ports Bill 4181, but also said she believes it does not go far enough. 

“My per­sonal opinion is that we should ban all use of hand-held devices while driving,” she said. “I see people of all ages abusing it all the time. Even hands-free, you’re still dis­tracted by the con­ver­sation.” 

Hillsdale County Sheriff Timothy Parker, however, said he doubts the prac­ti­cality of Bill 4181.

“The intent is really good,” he said. “But as law enforcement, when you see someone driving, how do you know they’re under 18?” 

Many things other than cell­phones can divert drivers’ attention. Parker said a driver in Hillsdale County once caused an accident when he reacted to a bee flying in his window, and that some leg­is­la­tures have con­sidered restricting eating while driving.

Parker said leg­is­lation is futile if it cannot be effec­tively imposed. 

“Dis­tracted driving comes in many forms,” he said. “Cell­phones pose an addi­tional problem, but we have to look at the enforce­ability.” 

Although he sup­ports Bill 4181, Leutheuser said he also doubts the virtue of imposing further driving restric­tions, as driving in an unsafe manner is already a civil infraction in Michigan. 

“I’m not sure we need more laws,” he said. “We need more com­pliance or, frankly, common sense.”