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Editorial: Keeping drivers focused on road a worthy goal

The Detroit News
Jan 29, 2022

It’s a common — and frightening — sight on Michigan roads and freeways: Swerving, erratic cars moving at high speeds, with drivers often hypnotized by the device in their hands and ignoring the task of operating a motor vehicle. The question is what should be done about it.

The Michigan House passed a package of bills last week aimed at curbing distracted driving. It garnered wide bipartisan support — something that is rare in Lansing.

Previous versions of these bills have failed to gain momentum in the Senate, and it’s not clear yet if they’ll fare any better this time.

The bills seek to severely limit any hand-held interaction with cell phones, which studies have shown is a significant contributor to crashes. Most cell phone use would become illegal, including holding a phone to make a call or posting a photo to social media. Laptops, tablets and similar devices would also be banned while driving.

Texting while driving has been illegal in Michigan since 2010.

The bills do allow for plenty of exceptions, including emergency calls, hands-free GPS, and calls with Bluetooth-connected phones. Not everyone has cars with updated technology allowing for voice-activated calls, however. So the bills shouldn’t go as far as to ban hands-free calls with the use of earbuds.

Earlier versions of the bills did limit headphones but that language was taken out.

Some lawmakers are displeased by the additional attempts at government intervention.

As Rep. John Reilly, R-Oakland Township, noted, “We have a love affair with safety. Liberty has an element of risk. We can’t have both. My question would be: When does this end?”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg got razzed last week when he announced the department’s “zero-fatality road safety strategy.” While people are still behind the wheel, human error will be impossible to erase completely. That’s a given.

But when our liberties — and bad decisions — put other people in danger, that’s when some safeguards are necessary. It’s hard to ignore the painful stories of families who’ve needlessly lost loved ones to distracted or drunken drivers.

The effort to tighten Michigan’s law has been led by Steven Kiefer, a General Motors executive whose 18-year-old son Mitchel was killed in 2016 by a distracted driver. The motorist was texting when she rear-ended him at 80 miles per hour. Mitchel Kiefer was on his way back to Michigan State University.

Steven Kiefer started the Kiefer Foundation to lobby for tougher laws around the country.

Enforcement of the law could prove challenging, but the legislation has wide support from both law enforcement and prosecutors. Plus, the bills contain a five-year sunset provision that would allow the Legislature to evaluate whether it had its intended effect.

Twenty-four other states and Washington, D.C., have already passed similar hand-held cell phone prohibitions.

No law can eliminate all the bad decisions drivers will make, but the tougher restrictions could make people think twice before taking their eyes off the road.

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