Bill banning cell phone use while driving passes House Committee

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A new bill that would ban the physical use of mobile devices while driving a motor vehicle received a positive review from the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee last week.

While texting and driving are currently prohibited under Alabama state law, House Bill 8 would ban a driver from physically handling their cell phone in any way and limit phone use to hands-free. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, is similar to a bill sponsored by former Alabama Rep. KL Brown of Jacksonville, which has not passed for the past four consecutive years.

After the death of 22-year-old Jacksonville State University student Leah Tarvin in late 2022, who was fatally struck by a vehicle on campus, Wood told the Alabama Daily News he heard renewed calls to try to stop the use of Mobile phones to ban driving again.

Wood said that Jacksonville Police Chief Marcus Wood reached out to him personally after the student’s death and asked him to account for a new version of Brown’s. Brown, representing Jacksonville as part of District 40, had a personal connection to trying to tighten the regulation of cell phone use by drivers.

Alabama Assemblyman Randy Wood (left) introduces his bill to ban cell phone use while driving before the House Safety and Homeland Security Committee March 22.

During last week’s committee meeting, Wood sought to allay concerns that the bill could be used by police to target minorities.

“I have spoken to several minorities and they agree with me; some do, some don’t, but that doesn’t harm minorities,” Wood told committee members.

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“It’s a safety factor, we want to protect lives. There are enough murders and people being killed, and one life is very precious; it doesn’t matter to me – black, white, male, female or whatever – life is very precious and everyone we save we are so ahead of the game.”

Wood went on to describe a number of changes to his bill that had been made since its inception, including exceptions for private investigators and drivers who stopped and pulled to the curb. Wood also clarified that fines collected from violators of the proposed law would be allocated to the state’s General Fund and not to local courts or municipalities.

Under current law, a conviction for texting while driving results in a double violation of a citizen’s driving record. Wood’s new bill would extend this two-point driving protocol violation to any physical use of a mobile device while driving, and add an additional three-point violation for those who see a third conviction within two years.

In terms of fines, current law provides that those convicted of texting while driving will be fined $25, $50, and $75 for their first, second, and subsequent violations respectively. The new law would increase those fines to $100, $200, and $300 for the first, second, and subsequent violations within 24 months and 15, 30, and 45 hours of community service, respectively.

Alabama drivers will have their license revoked if they accumulate 12 points over a two-year period, beginning with a 60-day suspension and increasing with more point violations.

The bill also includes a number of provisions that limit law enforcement conducting traffic stops related to the proposed law. You may not access the mobile device without a warrant, confiscate the mobile device, coercively obtain driver consent to search the mobile device, or remanded in custody solely for the use of the phone.

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Committee member Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, told Wood that while he understood the intent behind the law, he had concerns, particularly about the limits it would place on law enforcement.

“I’ve been here a long time and I’ve seen this bill a million times, and at one point in the legislative process we get into a situation where we’re trying to take an idea that we have and make it happen for everyone, and it’s coming to a point where it becomes difficult to work for anyone,” England said. “And we’re getting dangerously close to that threshold.”

Despite England’s concerns, the bill eventually received a unanimously positive opinion.

“It’s simple: This law is designed to save lives,” Wood told the Alabama Daily News. “We’re not trying to control anyone, we’re just trying to save lives. If we can make a difference and save a person, everything we do is worthwhile.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, distracted driving was responsible for 3,142 vehicle fatalities in 2020, a 0.7% increase from 2019 figures, despite a significant drop in vehicle traffic this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.