Steamboat Springs Opinions are mixed on a piece of legislation aimed at keeping motorists' hands on the wheel instead of their cell phone.
Colorado House Bill 1094 would require most drivers to use a hands-free device to talk on their cell phones. Drivers younger than 18, school bus drivers, and the drivers of vehicles regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, such as taxis, wouldn't be allowed to talk or text on cell phones at all. Violating the law would carry a $50 fine for a first offense and a $100 fine for subsequent offenses.
The bill passed the House on April 8 by a 39-25 vote. It narrowly escaped the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee in a 4-3 vote last week. The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to take up the legislation today.
"I'm opposed to it. I think there are a lot of distractions involved in driving, and we can't legislate all of them," said Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, a member of the Appropriations Committee. "It should be an issue of personal responsibility rather than legislative mandate."
White said the law could be abused and "opens the door significantly for those few bad-apple police officers looking for any reason to pull someone over for profiling reasons."
The Colorado State Patrol and County Sheriffs of Colorado support H.B. 1094.
"If you look at the reasons why we have accidents, inattention to driving leads the way in terms of those causal factors," State Patrol spokesman Sgt. John Hahn said.
Hahn said that in 2007 and 2008, cell phones were determined to be a contributing factor in 544 crashes investigated by the State Patrol. Seventy-four of the crashes involved injuries, and seven involved deaths. Hahn said the true number is likely much higher because the State Patrol only learns that a cell phone was involved in a crash if a witness notices a driver talking on one or the driver who causes the crash admits to using one.
Steamboat Springs Police Department and Routt County Sheriff's Office officials said they do not track how often cell phones are determined to be a contributing factor in accidents. Anecdotally, Sheriff's Office Investigator Ken Klinger said drivers distracted by cell phones often drive erratically.
"I can certainly tell you I have seen numerous near-misses with people who are talking on their cell phone and nearly run into people," Klinger said. "First I think they're drunk, and then I see they're on their cell phone."
Sheriff Gary Wall, however, said he opposes H.B. 1094 for the same reasons as White.
"I have some concerns about that. If you start to limit that, what else are you going to limit?" said Wall, who noted other potential distractions like changing the radio station, eating and talking to other people in the car. "It just seems to me to be another bill that 'gets somebody,' and I'm against those."
Wall also said he doesn't believe a handsfree device is any less distracting.
Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, voted in favor of the bill, but said Friday that he does not agree with it in its entirety.
"I think it's a terrible infringement on your rights," Baumgardner said. "The reason I voted for the bill was because kids 18 years or younger can't use phones or text. : If it can save the life of one teenager, it was worth it."