New law gives police new tool to combat distracted driving

WINSTON COUNTY - Alabama’s “hands-free” law, which largely prohibits holding a cell phone or other “wireless telecommunications device” or using one without hands-free technology while driving, went into full effect June 15, following a one-year grace period during violations resulted in warnings rather than citations.
The Representative Koven L. “K.L." Brown Act, defines wireless telecommunications devices as cellular or portable telephones, text-messaging devices, personal digital assistants (PDAs), stand-alone computers, GPS receivers and all substantially similar devices.
Continuous recording devices including dash and backup cameras are not included, nor are ignition interlock devices (breathalyzers that prevent a vehicle from being started without determining the driver’s blood alcohol level).
The law states that drivers "shall not engage in any actions prohibited by law which shall distract the person from the safe operation of the vehicle” and that “a person operates a vehicle in a distracted manner in violation of this section if the person is observed crossing in and out of a traffic lane without using a turn signal, swerving, or otherwise operating the vehicle in an impaired manner" while using a device in a prohibited way.
Drivers are prohibited from holding a device or supporting one with any part of the body, writing, sending or reading text-based messages of all kinds and from watching, recording or broadcasting video.
They also are prohibited from reaching for a device in a manner that requires them “to no longer be seated in driving position properly restrained by a safety belt.”
As of July, 2010, drivers under 18 who have a restricted license may not use a phone or other handheld communication device in any way while driving.
Drivers 18 and over may use hands-free technology for phone calls and voice-to-text transcription for messages if: (1) the device is mounted to the vehicle in a way that doesn’t create an obstructed view; (2) they use only a single tap or swipe of the finger on the phone and (3) that touch doesn’t activate a camera, video, gaming features, “or functions for viewing, recording, amusement or other non-navigational functions.”
A driver may also use a device for navigation or GPS but cannot input the navigation coordinates while driving.
Other circumstances that are exceptions to these prohibitions include using “an earpiece, headphone device, steering wheel controls, speaker phone or any voice-activated technology (. . .) to conduct substantially hands-free voice-based wireless communication,” using a device to obtain emergency services and using a device while parked on the shoulder.
There are also exceptions for first responders during the performance of their duties, for licensed physicians responding to a medical emergency and for employees of “utility service providers responding to a utility emergency or performing other critical utility services.”
The penalties for violation of this law are as follows: a first conviction results in a fine of up to $50 and a one-point violation on one’s license; a second conviction within a 24-month period results in a fine of up to $100; a third conviction within the same 24 months carries a fine of up to $150.   The second and third convictions also carry a two- and three-point violation respectively.
A person appearing in court “for a first charge of violating this law who produces a device or proof of purchase of a device that would allow the person to comply with (the law) in the future shall not be guilty of the offense.”
Since the law’s passage, different entities have had different interpretations of one aspect of it, whether a driver can be pulled over solely for holding or using a phone or other device in a prohibited way or if the driver must also be driving in an impaired manner.
The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) stated in a March 11, article on that, "The new hands-free law is a secondary offense, meaning drivers must first be seen committing another traffic violation to be pulled over and receive a citation.”
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) said in a May 31, Facebook post that holding a cell phone is "not a secondary violation," but added, quoting the law, "Individuals observed crossing in and out of a traffic lane without using a turn signal, swerving or otherwise operating the vehicle in an impaired manner while physically holding a wireless telecommunication device could be issued a citation.”
Similarly, an infographic included in the post states, “Physically holding a wireless telecommunication device is a violation of the law when a driver is observed crossing in and out of a traffic lane without using a turn signal, swerving, or otherwise operating the vehicle in an impaired manner.”
Both statements suggest that, to ALEA, holding a phone without driving in an impaired manner is not grounds for being pulled over.
ALEA did not respond to the Alabamian’s request for more information before press time, and Winston County Sheriff Caleb Snoddy was unavailable for comment.
Addison Police Chief Luke Sheppard pointed out that everything on the above list that defines impaired driving in the new law is a separate driving offense and comes with its own possible citation.
“If I see you do those offenses while holding or using a cell phone, I will or could write you a separate citation for each offense,” Sheppard said, noting that his understanding of the law is that law enforcement officers can pull someone over any time they see a driver holding a phone.
He said enforcing this new law will help law enforcement be able to get drivers’ attention as a means of preventing distracted driving.
“As far as the Addison Police Department, this new law is going to be strictly enforced across the board because we have our share of fatalities around Addison. We have our share of bad accidents where people are hurt seriously,” he continued. “If we can cut that in half or just cut it down a couple of percentages each year, that would be very effective. If we can save one life, it’d be well worth enforcing that law and getting someone's attention.”
Sheppard said that driving while distracted is just as bad as driving under the influence because when drivers are not paying attention, they may hurt or kill someone else, just as they might while driving under the influence.
He pointed out that using a phone while driving is a bad habit the public needs to break.
 “We can do this,” he emphasized, noting that there was a time when everyone drove without cell phones because they didn’t exist.
He also pointed out the availability of Bluetooth and other hands-free technology will make it easier.
He said law enforcement’s goal is to make sure drivers arrive safely at their destinations.
 “If we have to pull you over and enforce the law (to make that happen), then we will. That’s our job.”
“The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency would like to remind you that any behavior that distracts or takes away your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle is dangerous.” ALEA said in its post. “Distracted driving causes crashes and ultimately puts the lives of those operating vehicles on Alabama’s roadways at risk.”



See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
Subscribe now!