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Whitmer wants 'hands-free' cellphone law for drivers

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Police officers could ticket Michigan drivers for using hand-held mobile devices in most instances under a proposal Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made in her Feb. 12, 2019 State of the State speech.

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday urged the Legislature to adopt a “hands-free” driving law that would prohibit motorists from using hand-held cellphones or other mobile electronic devices on Michigan roads.

“Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of our young people,” Whitmer told lawmakers and the viewing public in her first annual State of the State address, where she also stressed the need to fix Michigan’s crumbling roads.

“You can’t navigate any road if you’re looking at your phone. So in addition to better roads, we need safer roads,” she said.when calling 911 to request emergency services.

Legislation being introduced this week by Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, would ban hand-held mobile phone use while driving but make clear that motorists could still use the devices in a voice-operated mode or through integration with their car's user interface.

The proposal would also prohibit drivers from reading or posting to a social network while driving, watching video on a mobile device or wearing headphones in both ears to listen to music, video or other broadcasts.

Michigan already prohibits texting while driving. It is a primary offense, meaning motorists can be pulled over and ticketed for suspected texting. But enforcement is usually rare and the state does not ban other types of cellphone use.

"The hands-free driving law that we have on the books now is a little antiquated," Manoogian told The Detroit News. "It doesn’t take into account future technology, especially technology that we have in our vehicles today."

Manoogian noted her own vehicle is equipped with CarPlay, a dash display that functions as an iPhone controller. "If you need to make a phone call or you need to text, you can use hands-free technology to make sure you're doing it safely," she said. 

Under the proposal, a first offense for using a hand-held mobile device while driving would be punishable by a $100 fine, 16 hours of community service or both. A second offense could warrant a $250 fine and 24 hours of community services.

Drivers who caused a crash while using a cellphone would face double fines and could lose their license for up to 90 days for multiple offenses.

In her speech, Whitmer highlighted Mitchel Kiefer, a Michigan State University freshman who in 2016 was killed by a distracted driver on Interstate 96. His family, which formed a foundation to fight distracted driving, joined Whitmer for the address at the Michigan Capitol.

“I know the Kiefers, and I believe it’s time for Michigan to join the 16 states that have passed hands-free laws to keep our roads and our kids safe,” Whitmer said. “So let’s make it happen.”

Former state Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy, introduced a bill in 2017 that would have banned hand-held mobile phone use while driving. The proposal was debated in a House committee but stalled without advancing to the floor.