New Plan to Ban Handheld Phone Use While Driving for Everyone in Colorado

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Update: Senate Bill 19-012, the texting while driving bill described below, was unanimously approved by the Colorado Senate's transportation-and-energy committee on February 14. Its next stop is the appropriations committee. Continue for our previous coverage.

A new bill to make driving while using a handheld cell phone or similar device illegal in Colorado is ready to go for the 2019 legislative session. And while a similar measure was done in by what's known among politicos in the General Assembly as the "kill committee" last year, attorney Scott O'Sullivan, one of the bill's most vocal advocates, thinks it has a better chance this time around.

"Our hope is that the 2019 legislature will be more receptive to it, so at least we can get a vote up or down in the House or Senate," he says about Senate Bill 2019-012, also known as "Use of Electronic Mobile Devices While Driving." He adds, "This should be a bipartisan issue."

In recent months, O'Sullivan, who specializes in personal-injury law, has been raising attention about risks on the road by way of the Denver Accident Map, a new resource developed by his practice, the O'Sullivan Law Firm, in conjunction with his data-expert brother-in-law, Andrew Russette. The map, which draws from Denver Police Department statistics, is updated every 24 hours and offers a multiplicity of information that's easy to access and consistently fascinating.

But O'Sullivan has also been active in pushing for legislative changes to make driving in Colorado safer. In 2017, he testified on behalf of the Increase Penalty for Texting While Driving Act, sponsored by Senator Lois Court. The measure, which passed and was signed into law, banned texting while driving for those under age eighteen and increased the penalty for adults found guilty of distracted driving from $50 to $300.

Then, during the 2018 session, O'Sullivan and a group of other advocates, including Susan Dane, founder of Coloradans Organized for Responsible Driving, tried to make Colorado "truly hands-free," in his words, via the Use of Mobile Electronic Devices While Driving Act, again put forward by Court. Its eventual failure hasn't dissuaded backers from trying again.

What would the new bill do?

"The law currently restricts those under eighteen from using any mobile device while driving, but it does not do that for people over eighteen," O'Sullivan explains about the 2019 offering, co-sponsored by Court and Representative Jovan Melton. "The change proposed now would make it unlawful for anyone to have a mobile device in their hand while driving unless they come to a complete stop or for emergency services — like their life is under threat or they're calling 911 to help somebody else or themselves."

The language of the legislation is intended to be "broad enough to anticipate future devices, including video devices, gaming devices, texting devices, anything," he continues. "We've tried our best to have a law that can endure several years into the future."

Just as important, driving while using a handheld phone "can be a primary offense," O'Sullivan reveals. "If an officer sees you with a mobile device in your hand, he or she can pull you over for that. The first offense would be $300 and four points off your license, $500 and six points for the second violation, and $750 and eight points for the third and subsequent violations."

Imposing such restrictions won't be an undue burden on lower-income drivers, O'Sullivan argues. "Almost every car now has some kind of Bluetooth connectivity, so you can talk hands-free. And if you don't have a car with that feature, there are cheap alternative options for Bluetooth speakers in your car, or one for your visor. If you have a really old car and it still has a tape deck, there's even a device for that — one that you can connect to your cassette deck with a cord and still be hands-free. So this isn't just for the affluent. It's something I think is available for all drivers."

Colorado would hardly be the first state to put such regulations into statute, as you can see by the following graphic assembled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The states colored green with cross-hatching have banned handheld phone use by all drivers, and there are more than a dozen of them.

Critics of legislation targeting handheld devices have suggested that it's difficult to prove a driver was using one, particularly at the time of an accident. But O'Sullivan rejects this line of attack. "If an officer can pull somebody over for using a mobile device, that's a pretty easy standard. And what we'd like to see in the future would be the Colorado State Patrol and local departments doing mobile phone checkpoints almost the way they do DUI checkpoints. If you have an officer standing at an intersection with a radar gun, why don't you also look to see if drivers are on the phone and pull them over for that?"

The reasons O'Sullivan is so passionate about the issue are twofold. "Unfortunately, in my job, I see terrible things pretty much every day," he acknowledges. "Things that have happened to my motorcycle clients, my clients on bicycles, my clients who were pedestrians when they were hit — and a larger percentage of the time, it was through distracted driving. The number of motorcycle drivers, in particular, who've been permanently maimed, disfigured, suffered a loss of limb or were killed is just too high, and something has to be done."

On top of that, he goes on, "I now have a teenager who's learning to drive. We've always tried to model in my household to never use a handheld phone or text or even look at music while driving, and we hope that modeling behavior will help him not do those kinds of things in the future. Having this law will help with that — and my son has actually formed a group to help get it passed. One of the things he's discovered since he started doing research on it is that driving and using a handheld device is the number-one cause of death for his age group, fifteen to twenty-something."

Since the last bill was shelved, a lot has changed at the legislature, with both chambers now under Democratic control. But at the same time, Republican lawmakers and Dems alike are the the very sort of folks most likely to take umbrage at anyone telling them they can't talk on a handheld device and drive safely.

O'Sullivan points out that "there are surveys showing everyone thinks the other guy using the phone is a terrible person, but they're better at it. Like, 'It's okay if I do it, but the other guy's a maniac.' So there's a sort of willful blindness and hypocrisy that a lot of people have."

At the same time, though, "I think we all see this as a problem, because it's such a common thing. The other day, I saw someone using a handheld phone who was completely unhinged — yelling and gesticulating and barely missing cars. So the question is, are legislators willing to help?"

Click to access "Use of Electronic Mobile Devices While Driving."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts