West Bloomfield Police Chief Michael Patton was one of the police officials who recently weighed in on Michigan’s new distracted driving law.

West Bloomfield Police Chief Michael Patton was one of the police officials who recently weighed in on Michigan’s new distracted driving law.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Local police officials discuss new distracted driving law

By: Mark Vest | C&G Newspapers | Published July 7, 2023


OAKLAND COUNTY — Some people are hoping Michigan roadways will become safer to travel after a new bipartisan law took effect June 30 to prohibit driving and holding a cellphone for any use unless there is an emergency.

After being introduced in the state Legislature, three bills related to distracted driving were recently signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

According to a press release issued on behalf of Insurance Alliance of Michigan, data from the Michigan State Police showed that in 2021, more than 16,000 motor vehicle crashes involved a distracted driver, with 59 of those crashes resulting in a fatality.

A press release from the Michigan Department of Transportation stated that MDOT will install 37 signs at state line and border crossings announcing the hands-free cellphone law.

Michigan is now the 26th state to adopt a hands-free driving law.

According to the release from MDOT, texting while driving has been illegal in Michigan since 2010, but increasing the parameters of the law to prohibit the use of phones “without hands-free technology is expected to further improve safety for all road users, including passengers, pedestrians and road workers.”

Information shared by the Michigan State Police states that the Michigan Vehicle Code has been amended to prohibit an individual from using an electronic mobile device while operating a motor vehicle, a commercial motor vehicle or a school bus.

Mobile electronic device means an electronic device that is not permanently installed in a motor vehicle, including, but not limited to, a device capable of text messaging, voice communication, entertainment, navigation, accessing the internet or producing email.

The use of a mobile electronic device means using a mobile electronic device to do any task, such as sending or receiving a call; sending, receiving or reading a text message; viewing, recording or transmitting a video; and accessing, reading or posting to a social networking site.

Police officers who observe those actions can treat a violation as the sole reason for issuing a citation to a driver.

Exemptions include calling or texting 911; making an emergency call to a law enforcement agency, health care provider or fire department; and reporting a fire, a traffic accident, a serious road hazard, a hazardous materials emergency, a driver who is driving in a reckless or unsafe manner, a driver who appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or a crime that is being committed.

From the perspective of Keego Harbor Police Chief John Fitzgerald, distracted driving is a “huge” problem, and the new law makes the job of police officers easier.

“Now it says exactly what you can’t do,” he said. “It was kind of broad before. When they get specific, it helps us out.  … We’re (not) having to make up decisions and make the call as each individual officer sees it. Now, all the officers will see the exact same thing.”

Farmington Hills Police Chief Jeff King shared a similar sentiment.

“We’ve been looking for some additional measures or legislation to come through to allow us to enforce this law,” he said. “(It’s) not just texting while driving — we see people driving watching videos on their phone, watching videos on their dashboard devices suction-cupped to their windshield; they’re doing FaceTime with individuals on their phones. When it all comes down to it, it’s distracting them from the safe and effective operation of their vehicle. … When you’re driving, the only thing you should really be doing is driving that vehicle, maintaining not only the safety and operation of your vehicle and what it’s doing and what you’re doing in it, but being on the lookout for the other driver.”

West Bloomfield Police Chief Michael Patton also weighed in on the new law.

“It basically boils down to, when you’re driving the car, don’t handle or use your cellphone for talking or texting,” he said. “The whole import of all this is that distracted driving’s a thing. Help be part of the solution to minimizing issues that come up with distracted driving — the near misses or the ones that result in crashes, injuries or deaths, because there’s a lot of sad stories out there that you can point to that were a result of distracted driving. Sometimes, particularly, using a cellphone while driving.”

Orchard Lake Lt. Jeff Gomez said the new law is “great” and that distracted driving has been a problem for a long time.

“Here in Orchard Lake, one of the most common types of crashes that we tend to respond to are rear-end type crashes, and I believe a contributing factor to those crashes are distracted driving, especially in slow-moving traffic,” he said. “Somebody may be distracted (by) their device and not necessarily notice the traffic that’s stopped ahead of them, and that leads to a rear-end type crash.”

Gomez also wanted to make clear what he thinks the new law is not about.

“Critics will say that this is about revenue generation, when it’s not — it’s compliance and safety,” he said. “But if you don’t have some sort of consequence, then what’s the reason to abide by it, right?”

Michigan law requires drivers, front-seat passengers, and passengers 15 or younger in any seating position to be buckled up.

Many in the state are familiar with the “Click It or Ticket” seat belt enforcement campaign, and King discussed that law, in comparison with the new state law that makes it illegal to use a cellphone with your hands while operating a vehicle.

“It (seatbelt violations) is significantly lower than what it was, in my experience and in the experience of my officers, but it took a long time, a lot of enforcement, tickets and education,” King said. “I think this is going to be even harder to break, because you had technology that when you got in your car and you didn’t put your seatbelt on, you got that annoying bell or buzzer that kept going off the more you drove. … People are really addicted to these cellphones and their hand-held devices. … It’ll take some time, but I think we’ll get there.”

Gomez, who also pointed out that distracted drivers can seriously injure or kill bicycle riders, particularly in areas where the shoulder isn’t very broad, thinks that the new law will eventually lead to fewer traffic crashes.

“I think it’s going to take people some time to adjust, because before, the Legislature was saying you can use it at a stop light,” he said. “Well, that’s no longer the case. If you’re operating a vehicle, if the car is on the roadway, engine’s running or car’s in gear, you’re operating the vehicle, so that’s no longer acceptable. So I do think that in the long run it will make things safer.”

Although police departments have been using social media to get the word out about the new law, Patton understands that it is likely going to be an adjustment for many people.

However, one specific detail could help drivers be alert and aware.

“(This) is what we call a primary offense, in so much that police officers, if they have a reasonable basis to believe that (there’s been) a violation of these new distracted driving laws, they could stop you just for that, and drivers ought to be mindful of that,” Patton said. “They’re going to need to maybe modify or adapt their behavior accordingly to be in compliance with the law.”

The new law also means that drivers cannot use their phones while at stop signs or red lights.

If someone breaks the new law, the first violation calls for a $100 civil fine or 16 hours of community service, or both. A second violation carries with it a $250 civil fine or 24 hours of community service, or both.

The fines and hour requirements double if the individual is involved in a crash.

Three or more civil infractions within a three-year period can lead to a court order that individuals have to “complete a basic driver improvement course within a reasonable time as determined by the court.”

Fitzgerald shared a message that could both save lives and save drivers some money.

“I want to say, everybody, put those phones down and your tablets,” he said.

More information about the legislation and the penalties are available at michigan.gov/DistractedDriving.

Staff Writer Mike Koury contributed to this report.

Call Staff Writer Mark Vest at (586) 498-1052.