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.”