RALEIGH — Rep. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon), who represents the furthest west district of the state, filed a bill in late February to tackle distracted driving — an issue that has been gathering complaints by first responders and the public at large for years. North Carolina would be the 17th state to pass legislation cracking down on those using mobile devices while driving.
Corbin told North State Journal the idea started with the Independent Insurance Agents, who made it their number one priority for this session. A poll that they commissioned with Meredith College found that 93 percent of respondents considered distracted driving a major hazard. A majority even considered it a bigger problem than drunk driving.
As he was trying to do research on appropriate language, he reached out to Rep. John Carson of Georgia, who had passed a similar bill for his state. Carson actually flew out to Raleigh to meet with Corbin and then later drove up from Marietta, Georgia, to Corbin’s home in Franklin, North Carolina. Carson spent the weekend with Corbin and his family and went over the details of the bill and its positive effect on Georgia.
“The thing that really hit me, was that Georgia had a 16 percent decrease in traffic accidents after passing the bill, and they only passed the bill this past July,” Corbin said. “State Farm just announced, for the first time in 20 years, that car insurance premiums in Georgia were going to go down.”
While it’s illegal to text and drive now in North Carolina, Corbin said when he sat down with law enforcement, they told him the law was virtually unenforceable.
“When it goes to court, all they’ve got to say is, ‘I was checking my email,’” Corbin said, recalling his conversation with state troopers. “Unless somebody rolls down the window and says, ‘Yes, officer, I was texting my girlfriend to see what time we were going to supper,’ they don’t write them a ticket. So, we essentially have no distracted driving law at all.”
The troopers told him they needed it to be illegal for the driver to be holding the phone in their hands as they drive. It doesn’t matter to them whether they are texting, emailing or checking social media, the distraction from the device is the same in the eyes of law enforcement. And that’s exactly what the bill that Corbin filed does. House Bill 144, Hands Free NC, prohibits driving:
1. With a wireless communication device in the person’s hand.
2. While physically holding or supporting a wireless communication device with the person’s body.
3. While watching a video or movie or communicating by video on a wireless communication device.
4. While texting on a wireless communication device.
If a vehicle is pulled off a road or highway, is stationary in an off-road area like a parking lot, or when the engine is off, then the driver is allowed to use wireless devices. Persons 18 or older can use a device while driving if it is “affixed, mounted, or installed in the vehicle and used to handle a call by touching a single button.” Additionally, affixed or mounted wireless devices can be used for navigation purposes so long as the address is input prior to actually being in motion on the road.
The first offense under HB 144 would only carry an $100 fine, but subsequent violations would include higher fines as well as points on the violator’s insurance. While these penalties are much less severe than DWI penalties, Corbin said it was important to at least get the law on the books and maybe they can be strengthened later. The decrease in accidents and in car insurance rates seen in Georgia was achieved with similar penalties.
In addition to cross-state cooperation, this bill has cross-party cooperation as well. There are 46 cosponsors for the bill, 24 Democrats and 22 Republicans. The bipartisan makeup of these sponsors, including amongst the four primary sponsors, shows the wide public support to tackle this problem. Corbin said he was unaware of any organized opposition to the bill yet and was unsure if any would form. Mostly, he said, people just start shaking their head and start telling him stories about all the distracted driving they see on a daily basis.
“I did a little informal survey,” Corbin told NSJ. “I have the longest drive in the General Assembly, 313 miles to Raleigh, most of that on Interstate-40. A couple weeks ago, I just said, I’m going to watch. Of the cars I passed, I looked over, and literally 50 percent of cars, the person was using their phone. And that was just at the moment I happened to look at them”
At a press conference announcing the bill, Corbin was joined by his House cosponsors, Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, AAA Carolinas, law enforcement and family members of those killed by distracted drivers. Causey and the N.C. Department of Insurance fully endorsed the bill.
“I’m on the road every day driving across North Carolina, and not a day goes by I don’t see people driving down the interstate at 80 miles an hour and looking down and texting,” Causey said at the press conference. “Too many people are dying needlessly because of this, I think the time has come for us to get behind this legislation and pass it. I think we have broad bipartisan support.”
“We need to take steps to make our roads safer,” House Majority Whip Rep. John Hardister (R-Guilford), another primary sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “Although I am in favor of personal freedom, I am also in favor of protecting people’s safety, especially on our public roads and highways. The implementation of this law has the potential to save lives.”
If HB 144 is passed, which seems likely due to its wide sponsorship, it would be effective the first day of 2020, a day that also sees many arrests for driving while intoxicated. There would be an introductory period from January through July though where warnings rather than tickets would be given.
Rep. Carson of Georgia, who Corbin says he now considers a friend after all the time they spent together bringing this bill to North Carolina, also traveled to Raleigh for the press conference.
“These laws work, and I applaud Kevin Corbin for introducing this,” Carson told the press. “This is the DUI issue of our generation. Are we going to step up and address it?”
South Carolina is also debating distracted driving legislation at the moment. Corbin said he called his cousin Tom Corbin, a Republican state senator from near Greenville, South Carolina, and Tom said he also planned to support it.
The N.C. bill has yet to be heard in committee and currently has a lengthy path through the House committee process with scheduled stops in five committees beginning with Transportation, then moving to Insurance, Judiciary, Finance and, finally, the House Rules Committee.