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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Prepare to change driving and phone habits

Indiana drivers will need to change their ways in July when a law is expected to take effect cracking down on cell phone use while driving.

The Indiana Senate last week joined the House in approving House Bill 1070 that prohibits drivers from having a phone in hand while driving their vehicles. The Senate passed the bill 43-4 on Tuesday, while the House had previously approved the legislation 86-10.

Some minor changes in wording made by the Senate will require the measure to be reapproved by the House, however, before it can be sent on to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb to sign it into law. Once enacted, the hands-free mobile device mandate will take effect July 1. The only exception to the hands-free requirement is when a driver is using a phone to call 911 to report an emergency.

While it is already technically illegal in Indiana for drivers to type, transmit or read email or text messages while their vehicles are in motion, according to a 2011 law, holding a phone to talk is not banned. But in 2016, a federal appellate court essentially neutered that statute, saying police can’t accurately discern whether a driver is illegally texting or using a phone for a purpose not prohibited.

We understand the concerns of some, such as State Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, who was among the four senators to oppose the new hands-free measure. She told the Northwest Indiana Times it doesn’t make sense to criminalize holding a phone while driving when drivers can be just as distracted trying to eat a sandwich, which is not against the law.

We have stressed the importance of this law. Seat belts might be considered a similar kind of government directive, but they save lives, and most people use them without a second thought.

The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute has reported that every year since 2015, there have been more than 1,200 collisions on Indiana roads resulting in 40 total fatalities in which a cellphone or other electronic device was a factor.

In the 2015 National Survey on Distracted Driving Attitudes and Behaviors by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 42percent of respondents said they answer their cellphones while driving at least some of the time, and 56 percent of them continue to talk on the phone while driving. Some 9 percent of respondents reported sometimes sending texts or emails while driving, and 12 percent said they read texts while driving.

“This is about saving lives,” Holcomb said in a statement to the IndyStar in January. “We know that a handheld device does three things. One: It takes your brain off what you’re supposed to be paying attention to. Two: It takes your hands off of what you’re supposed to be holding on to. Three: It diverts your attention. When your hands and your eyes and your brain are all doing something other than steering a car, bad things tend to happen.”

The law will allow use of devices if they are operated in a hands-free or voice-activated mode.

We advise Hoosier motorists to either invest in hands-free accessories or discipline themselves to keep them out of their hands while driving or let a passenger handle them. It’s really not that difficult.

What will be difficult is enforcement, even though the law’s author, Holli Sullivan, R-Evansville, says the bill will make that easier for public safety officials.

She told the Indy Star there will be a “very large, comprehensive and statewide educational campaign about this law.”

“What is important is for us to start a culture shift so that we can limit the number of accidents caused by distracted driving,” she said.

We agree.

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