INDIANAPOLIS—Grabbing that cell phone while behind the wheel of a car for any reason could get a driver pulled over and ticketed by the police beginning July 1.
Distracted driving legislation that passed the General Assembly in the 2020 session says that Hoosiers will now be penalized for holding or using a cell phone while driving. This means new hands-free technology will have to be implemented in Indiana residents’ vehicles if they want to use their phones or other devices.
“They will be looking at an infraction,” said Sgt. Matt Ames of the Indiana State Police of the penalty imposed by House Enrolled Act 1070, which could mean a fine of $125 to $140. Beginning in 2021, drivers could be assessed points on their driving record for this infraction, which could jeopardize a person’s driver’s license.
The risk of driving distracted can be high, he said, noting that it takes approximately five seconds to send a text, in that time the length of a football field is driven, assuming the driver is going a speed limit of 55 mph. That means the vehicle is covering about 100 yards driven every five seconds.
What’s more, Ames said, is that even if a text is not responded to, simply looking at the message could disrupt concentration and become a hazard to everybody on the road.
Indiana passed its first distracted driving law was passed in 2011 but needed updates on wording because it was deemed unenforceable by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Rep. Holli Sullivan, R-Evansville and author of the legislation. That first law banned texting while driving.
In 2016, the federal appellate court found that the law was “largely inefficacious” because a police officer would be unable to tell that a person holding a cell phone was actually texting. The officer had stopped a man who bent over his cell phone and found heroin in the car. The heroin charge was thrown out because, the court said, the officer couldn’t have known the man was testing.
The 2011 law left out actions such as GPS, social media and other cell phone use. Now Indiana residents cannot have their phone in their hand for any reason, or they could be stopped.
The law is aimed at curbing the number one killer of teens in the United States. AAA reported this year that a study that found that 94% of teens acknowledge the danger of distracted driving, but 35% admit to doing it any way.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2017, nearly one in 10 of all fatal crashes involved distractions.
The data are why Sullivan said she wants to focus on educating people of the dangers that come with being on devices while driving.
“It’s really important we keep the driver’s thoughts on driving, eyes on the road, and hands on the wheel and not on their phones,” she said.
While support for the legislation was strong in both the House and Senate, passing 81-11 and 49-1 respectively, one lawmaker called it half-baked.
“It does not address those who own cars unequipped with navigational systems and use their phones for directions,” said Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, in a written statement in response to questions about his opposition. “It also does not address police officers who must use computers while on patrol. The bill fails to consider more than a few factors, and that is why I voted no.”
He was joined in his no vote by Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, who said that there were already “too many laws and regulations in the books.”
He also said that this law was giving the government too much control in citizens lives’ and cited other drivers who may be distracted by other things.
“I believe instead of criminalizing everything, we should simply hold people accountable for their actions,” Lucas said. “But if we’re going to criminalize someone for talking on the cell phone, what about the people who drive down the road while eating a sandwich, or reading a book, or having a dog in their lap, or putting make up on.”
Ames and Sullivan both said that there are solutions to help Hoosiers avoid distracted driving, including keeping the phone on a do not disturb or airplane mode, turned completely off or giving the device to a passenger to manage. Ames suggested setting the phone for music and directions before starting to drive plus there are various Bluetooth devices that can help keep the driver hands free, such as earpieces and other adapters.
“The thing people need to remember is distracted driving is 100% preventable for the driver,” Ames said.