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Michigan House Greenlights Ban on Handheld Cellphone Use While Driving

May 3, 2023

The Detroit News
May 2, 2023
Beth LeBlanc

Lansing — The Michigan House on Tuesday approved legislation requiring that any cellphone use while driving be handsfree — an effort to crack down on distracted driving crashes and fatalities in Michigan.

The three-bill package, which failed to gather the needed votes last week, passed 68-39 with increased Republican support after a change was made to penalties triggered by multiple offenses.

Instead of having their driver’s license suspended after a third offense, the change would allow a driver to instead take a driver’s education refresher course as a penalty for the third offense.

If passed through the Senate and signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan would become the 26th state in the nation to adopt a hands-free driving law.

“I think this creates a culture where people think twice about distracted driving,” said Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth. “Other states have done this. Other states have seen positive results in terms of lessening of fatalities on the road.”

Tuesday’s vote marked the third time similar legislation moved through the lower chamber, according to legislative records. Prior efforts have stalled in the Senate. Similar versions of the distracted driving bills have been introduced in the House over the past five legislative sessions.

Lawmakers are hoping for quick passage through the Senate and enough Republican support in the upper chamber that it would be able to take immediate effect ahead of the summer months, when traffic fatalities usually increase.

Some Democratic lawmakers had expressed opposition to the package in the past because of concerns over how it would affect minority and low-income communities that may not be able to afford the blue tooth systems or car mounts allowed for under the handsfree law. They also worried the new law would be used to make targeted traffic stops of minority communities.

All but one of the nine Democratic lawmakers who voted against the measure last week changed their vote to a yes on Tuesday. The bills also received an additional 11 Republican votes Tuesday, for a total of 15 Republican members voting in support.

The bills allow police to use a violation of the handsfree law as the sole or primary reason to make a traffic stop. But the proposed law prohibits that violation from being used as the sole reason to search a motor vehicle or driver.

A companion bill by Linden Republican Rep. Mike Mueller introduced would require a 42-month study reviewing the application of the law, including its use on certain demographic populations. The bill also would create a 5-year sunset, after which lawmakers would have to vote to extend the law.

Rep. Donavan McKinney, D-Detroit, said the changes to the third offense penalty were enough of “a step in the right direction” to change his no vote last week to a yes on Tuesday.

“We all came to an agreement with stakeholders as well as with our caucus that the best course of action is not to create more harm; it’s to educate,” McKinney said.

Rep. Jaime Greene, R-Richmond, said she remained opposed to the legislation Tuesday because she saw it as overly punitive and redundant of distracted driving laws already in place in Michigan. She believed education on the effects of distracted driving would be more influential in discouraging cellphone use while driving.

“What are we trying to accomplish?” Greene said. “We want people to text and drive less. We already want people to speed less as well … More laws doesn’t necessarily mean that that action is going to take place.”

The bills, introduced by Koleszar, Mueller and Detroit Democratic Rep. Tyrone Carter, would prohibit an individual from holding or using an electronic mobile device while operating a motor vehicle by amending the distracted driving section of Michigan’s current vehicle code.

The bill would expand on current laws banning texting and driving to include any kind of activity on a cellphone.

The legislation would not apply to hands-free bluetooth devices or the use of a car mount. The ban on handheld devices does not include a CB or ham radio or a medical device such as an insulin pump.

Exceptions are made if the vehicle is completely stopped off the roadway or if the phone is being used to report a traffic crash, road hazard or medical emergency. Law enforcement officers and emergency responders also are exempted from the law while carrying out official duties.

Violations of the law, depending on the existence of repeat violations, could result in a civil fine, points on an individual’s driver’s license or community service.