Keeping eyes on the road
State lawmakers take another crack at Michigan's distracted driving laws
State lawmakers take another crack at Michigan's distracted driving laws.
By Gina Joseph and Charles Crumm MediaNews Group
May 10, 2021
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Texting and driving was the cause of a crash that severely damaged this vehicle a few years ago in Eastpointe.
Macomb Daily file photo
Digital First Media
Several bills are back in Lansing to toughen Michigan's distracted driving laws by prohibiting drivers from touching any electronic devices behind the wheel. MACOMB DAILY FILE PHOTO
By Gina Joseph firstname.lastname@example.org; @ginaljoseph on Twitter
A few days after Christmas more than a decade ago, a distracted driver ran a red light at the intersection of 32 Mile and Romeo Plank roads and collided with a car in which 16-year-old Ally Zimmerman was a passenger.
Zimmerman, a vocalist, dancer, and drama student, later died from her injuries.
The tragic accident that took the life of a Romeo High School student who had a passion for theater arts but aspirations to become a doctor, not only shook her community but prompted a serious look at Michigan's ban on texting while driving law, which had been in effect for less than a year.
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Among those who have pushed to broaden the law and enact a ban on using any electronic device while driving unless there’s a hands-free set up are the Troy-based Transportation Improvement Association (TIA) and the Zimmerman family including Ally's mother, Laurel Zimmerman. For the past five-years, Ally has been the face of a public awareness campaign that has included support from friends, businesses, law enforcement, and its associated website handfreemichigan.com .
However, multiple attempts to pass hands-free legislation have failed to win passage in the Michigan legislature.
Santilli said it has been frustrating lawmakers haven't passed legislation curbing the use of electronic devices while driving, despite numerous efforts since 2016.
However, their efforts have not been in vain.
There is currently a three-bill package in the Michigan House and legislation in the Michigan Senate aimed at reducing incidents of distracted driving in general in Michigan, and the use of cell phones or other electronic devices while driving in particular.
"This is actually the fourth bill we've worked on since 2016," Santilli said. "We're talking about public safety here. It doesn't matter if you're Democrat or Republican. We should be focused on what's in the best interest of the public and stopping this dangerous behavior."
To illustrate how dangerous the phenomenon is, Santilli and others are quick to cite statistics of distracted driving in favor of a hands-free law in Michigan.
"When a driver is looking at electronic devices at 55 miles per hour, it's the equivalent of driving with your eyes closed for the length of a football field," Santilli said, citing one of several sobering statistics involving distracted driving.
Whether state lawmakers will go along this time around is uncertain.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has expressed support for a hands-free law, but there's a polarized political environment in Lansing with Republicans in charge of the House and Senate.
State Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican and former Michigan secretary of state, is the main sponsor of Senate Bill 409 to make Michigan a hands-free state.
She thinks the timing may be right for passage this time.
"It's nothing that's partisan," Johnson said. "People are getting hurt. People are getting killed. I would hope that common sense prevails and we do what most states have. There is a very real human cost and it's 100% preventable."
Johnson’s bill would allow a tap or a swipe, but electronic devices would have to be hands-free and entirely voice activated to use them while driving.
As Johnson pointed out there are 26 other states that have similar hands-free only laws for drivers using electronic devices.
According to TIA, California was the first state in the nation to enact a ban on hand-held cellphone use in July of 2008, and it made a difference immediately.
“Based on traffic crash records two years before and two years after the hand-held ban went into effect, overall traffic deaths declined 22% and hand-held cellphone driver deaths went down 47%,” said Santilli.
Republican State Sen. Michael MacDonald, who represents Michigan's 10th District, including the city of Sterling Heights, Macomb Township and most of Clinton Township said cell phones are even more of a distraction than ever, also making it more more important to improve the existing law.
"It's not just texting. People are doing everything on their phone," said MacDonald.
He, too, believes it is not a partisan issue and says the bill has a good chance of being passed since drivers have the technology to use electronic devices hands-free.
"Bluetooth technology is getting much better," he said. "When it first came out I would try to call my dad, but it would call an old business contact, by the name of Ben."
Weighing the bills
Also being considered are House Bills 4277, 4278, and 4279, sponsored by State Rep. Mari Manoogian, a Birmingham Democrat.
Manoogian's three-bill package is similar in its attempt, but Santilli said it's more lax and may cause enforcement issues, a complaint heard from police in the past about the state's current ban on texting and driving.
"The issue when comparing them is hers is unenforceable compared to the senate bill," Santilli said. "There's a section in there that says it doesn't apply if selecting a device or number. The issue with that is people are still going to pick up their device. A law enforcement officer isn't going to know. It's not really a true hands free bill that's going to be effective."
"At the end of the day, if they pair them together, I'm fine with that as long as we have a good solid bill that's enforceable," Santilli added.
Police have also expressed a need for legislation they feel is enforceable.
"I think from a police perspective (Senate Bill 409) would tighten up the rules regarding the use of portable electronic devices while operating a vehicle," said Sgt. Aaron Susalla, a member of the Sterling Heights police community services bureau.
Under Johnson's bill, drivers for example would no longer be allowed to use their cell phones while waiting at a red light, which is currently allowed.
Those who jump on their phones at a red light become engaged and in many cases are not watching for the green light. So, they delay the traffic behind them. When they do finally come up for air, the light is often red again.
Police also could pull over drivers based on suspected use of mobile devices without other violations and issue a ticket. Repeat violators could face one point on their driver’s license for a second violation and two points for any additional violations.
"The big thing about this is that it's going to get people to put down their phones," Susalla said. "If we can do that, then we can decrease the number of accidents and deaths on the roads and that would be wonderful."
Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham agreed.
"It's really an issue of safety; requiring devices to be hands-free allows drivers to keep both hands on the wheel and more in control of their vehicle," said Wickersham.