WRAL Investigates

Proposal would outlaw holding cellphone while driving in NC

Posted March 25, 2015 5:50 p.m. EDT
Updated March 25, 2015 6:48 p.m. EDT

— A state lawmaker wants to close a loophole that makes it very difficult for law enforcement officers to enforce North Carolina's ban on texting while driving.

North Carolina is one of 40 states that have laws against texting while driving. Yet, people still send and read text messages behind the wheel, and punishing them isn't so easy.

A WRAL Investigates report last July found that 1,458 people were cited with texting while driving in Wake County in 2013. Of the 1,367 cases disposed of in the county that year in Wake County, fewer than half resulted in drivers paying the $290 in fines and court costs. Many drivers fought their tickets and won.

The current law applies only to moving vehicles – drivers stopped at a red light can text and email – but drivers are still allowed to type into a phone's GPS and search for contacts. That distinction makes it tough on prosecutors.

Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, said a law enforcement officer would need a search warrant to seize a cellphone to support a charge that a driver was texting.

"It's easier (for the driver) to just say, 'No, I wasn't texting,'" Tarte said. "End of conversation. 'No, you can't look at my phone,' and there's nothing (an officer) can do."

His proposal, dubbed the Brian Garlock Act after a 17-year-old driver who was killed when he became distracted while using his cellphone, would simply make it illegal for a driver to hold a mobile device while driving.

People could still use hands-free devices and voice texting, but violations of the legislation would carry a $100 fine and court costs. A second violation within three years would also lead to a point on a driver's license – and the resulting higher insurance rates.

"It's going to bang you," Tarte said, "whether you're texting or not. If you're holding the phone, you're in trouble if you're driving."

More than 3,000 people die and more than a quarter-million are injured in the U.S. each year in crashes involving texting while driving, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

"As a dad, I support it. As a 40-something-year-old man, I'd be frustrated by it," Jim Palermo said of Tarte's proposal.

Fourteen states already have bans on using hand-held devices while driving, including California, where Joe DeKonty used to live.

"Do you start regulating when somebody puts their visor down to look in the mirror?" DeKonty said. "Somebody's always doing something. So, the question becomes, when are you accountable or held accountable for something that you're doing in a car?"