Laws that aim to cut down distracted driving gain traction

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published January 15, 2020

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TROY — If Jim Santilli, the CEO of the Transportation Improvement Association, has his way, Michigan will join 20 other states in becoming a “hands-free” state.

He is encouraging lawmakers to take action on Senate Bill 288, which would allow drivers to use portable electronic devices only if they can activate or deactivate a function on the device with a single swipe or tap of their finger. Also, the portable electronic device must be safely mounted on the windshield, dashboard or center console so it does not hinder the driver’s view of the road.

Drivers could still use other hands-free systems — such as OnStar, Sync or U-Connect — if the law is passed.

The TIA is a nonprofit traffic safety agency that currently serves approximately 70 communities in Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and Livingston counties.

“Since we announced the first hands-free bill on Sept. 6, 2016, preliminary numbers indicate 228 people were killed and 24,190 were injured in 63,709 crashes that were reported to involve a distraction,” Santilli said in a press release. “Many of these deaths and injuries likely would have been prevented if the Michigan Legislature enacted a hands-free law.”

If approved, the state law, introduced in the Senate on April 30, 2019, would carry a $125 fine for the first violation and a $250 fine for second and subsequent violations.

Santilli told the Troy City Council at a meeting on Feb. 21, 2011, that he and others had begun to push for a statewide distracted driving ordinance similar to Troy’s, which they would try to call “Ally’s Law” after Ally Zimmerman, 16, of Rochester Hills, who attended Romeo High School.

Zimmerman died from injuries she sustained in a car crash that occurred at 7 p.m. Dec. 28, 2010. Police said she was riding in a car traveling southbound on Romeo Plank Road that was struck by a vehicle heading eastbound on 32 Mile Road that had run a red light, and police believe that driver had been driving distracted.

Santilli had been on hand to speak at the Feb. 21, 2011, meeting after the city received the Excellence in Traffic Safety Award for 2010 from the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. The Troy City Council had approved the city’s distracted driving ordinance in July 2009.

According to a U.S. Department of Transportation summary on distracted driving released in April 2018, 9% of drivers ages 15-19 involved in fatal crashes in the U.S. in 2016 were reported as distracted, and 6% of all drivers involved in fatal crashes were distracted.

“We are seeing far too many drivers looking at and typing on portable electronic devices while driving,” Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said in the press release. “To make our roads safer, we need the Michigan Legislature to enact a true hands-free bill such as Senate Bill 288.  Lives can be saved and injuries will be prevented if drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel while driving.”

According to Santilli, California was the first state in the nation to enact a ban on handheld cellphone use while driving in July 2008.

“Based on traffic crash records two years before and two years after the handheld ban went into effect, overall traffic deaths declined 22% and handheld cellphone driver deaths went down 47%,” said Santilli. “After Georgia implemented a hands-free law, distracted driving dropped 21%.”

State Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, introduced House Bill 4181, which would ban any driver under the age of 18 from using a cellphone while driving.

Currently, the law only applies to individuals with learner’s permits or restricted licenses. The bill defines cellphone use as the act of initiating a call, answering a call or engaging in verbal communication through a phone. The law would not apply to individuals who are reporting accidents or other emergencies. The bill was passed by the House in December and awaits action in the Senate.

In Troy, police issued these citations and warnings for distracted driving:

2019 citations
• Distracted driving - handheld devices — 197.
• Distracted driving - other action — 40.
• Distracted driving - texting — 33.

2019 warnings
• Distracted driving - handheld devices — 215.
• Distracted driving - other action — 32.
• Distracted driving - texting — 26.

In Troy, the fine for texting while driving or distracted driving is $200, and the fine for driving while talking on a cellphone is $75. A second offense for texting while driving and distracted driving carries a $300 fine. The violations carry no points.

Under the city ordinance, drivers can talk on wireless phones with a hands-free device and dial a cellphone if stopped at a traffic signal.

The ordinance also identifies cellphone dialing and scrolling as distracted behavior that is also prohibited, as well as any action that diverts the driver’s attention, such as eating; reading; writing; performing personal hygiene/grooming; interacting physically with pets, passengers or unsecured cargo; and anything that prohibits the driver from keeping one hand free of all other objects and on the steering wheel while the vehicle is in motion.

Troy City Attorney Lori Grigg Bluhm said that if the state passes a law, the city would need to review and make sure that Troy’s ordinance does not conflict with the new state law.