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THE LAST WORD: Distracted driving law may seem like government overreach, but it may save lives

Kerry Hubartt

I understand our reluctance in this nation to have government dictate our conduct through what can be perceived as legislative overreach. But I also understand how those in government justifiably seek solutions to problems that harm us.

We have a seatbelt law designed to save lives — and it does. But we don’t have a law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets, which would also save lives. Both proposals received resistance due to the fear of creating a “nanny state” where the government becomes overprotective or interferes unduly with personal choice.

So it’s understandable that the several hands-free bills introduced in the Indiana General Assembly through the years to address the problem of distracted driving have failed to become law.

Many, if not most, of us who would even agree that it is a serious problem on our highways today are guilty of using our hand-held devices while operating our vehicles.

Now lawmakers are on the verge of passing a law, backed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, that would prohibit using or holding an electronic device while in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle. On Jan. 22, the House Roads and Transportation Committee voted unanimously to advance House Bill 1070, which later passed the House. It now goes to the Senate and could end up on the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

I read a sobering Indianapolis Star story last week that followed up that 2 1/2-hour committee hearing in the Indiana Statehouse during which 20 of those who packed the hearing room spoke out, including some who were personally affected by distracted driving collisions. Their stories made a strong case against distracted driving.

The main story in the article recounted an accident in 2005 in which a 20-year-old woman had been arguing with her boyfriend on her phone, one hand on the device and one on the wheel, as she turned onto a tree-lined road in Hamilton County. The next thing she knew, her car flipped and she was trapped inside for 90 minutes before being rescued. Doctors told her she would never walk again.

The woman pointed out in telling her story to the committee that before the crash she had never thought about the dangers of using a cellphone while driving. While she said she was fortunate no one else had been hurt by her carelessness, she felt guilt during her rehab.

“I met people who had work accidents, injuries caused by someone else,” she said. “A lot of people just had these really powerful and impactful stories. I just kept thinking everything that happened to me was because of a stupid cellphone.”

“When you’re looking at that phone, you’re not looking somewhere that you should be,” Holcomb said at the end of last year in announcing his plans to push hands-free legislation. “It’s those things that distract you from what you’re doing, and that’s driving.”

A News-Sentinel.com editorial on the topic in December pointed out statistics that showed more than 37,000 lives were lost on U.S. roads in 2016, up 5.6% from 2015; 10% of fatal crashes and 15% of injury crashes in 2015 were distraction-related, and it is estimated that cellphone use alone accounted for 27% of 2015 car crashes.

The Indy Star story said distracted driving kills about nine people every day in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute reports that each year since 2015, there were more than 1,200 collisions on Indiana roads where a cellphone or other electronic device was a factor, resulting in 40 fatalities.

So, what is the government to do? You and I can drive down our roads every day and see other drivers looking at their hand-held devices while behind the wheel. And some of them will eventually cause an accident that could kill someone.

It’s good that our lawmakers want to emphasize the importance of highway safety by trying to get a handle on curbing distracted driving. But it’s also troubling that making a law against it will not only be difficult to enforce, but also that that such regulations increase government’s role in legislating personal conduct.

Most of us have long since learned to fasten our seatbelts because it’s the law. Maybe, eventually, at least most of us will take a hand-held device law seriously enough to motivate us to keep our attention on the road while we drive. That could at least save some lives — maybe yours.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.