Our Opinion: 'Hands-Free NC' a flawed approach to highway safety | The Enterprise
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Our Opinion: 'Hands-Free NC' a flawed approach to highway safety

Posted on April 22, 2021

OpinionEditorials

Dave DiFilippo cartoon

Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey wants drivers’ hands on the steering wheel, not on their smartphones.

As a statewide elected official, Causey has emerged as the highest-profile advocate for the Hands-Free N.C. Act, a bill that seeks to ban use of a wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle. He’s issued news releases, shared videos on Facebook and YouTube and held an April 13 press conference in front of a crumpled car whose teen driver was killed in a texting-and-driving crash. 

The N.C. Department of Insurance boss seems sincere, but in his zeal to promote the legislation, he can’t help inadvertently pointing out its shortcomings.

He invited Amos Johnson, whose daughter lost her life in the wrecked sedan, to share his heartbreaking story during the news conference. Yet Causey’s bill wouldn’t have prevented the girl’s tragic death.

North Carolina already has a ban on texting and driving. General Statute 20-137.4A makes it unlawful for drivers to type or read text messages and emails. Hands-Free N.C. specifies other prohibited uses of smartphones and tablets, but the bill falls far short of supporters’ stated goals.

Causey tied his advocacy to Distracted Driving Awareness Month and acknowledged that driver distractions include a panoply of risky behaviors.

“There are many forms of distracted driving — talking or texting on a cellphone, eating or drinking coffee, putting on makeup, setting the navigation system, changing the radio station or tending to a child in the car,” the Department of Insurance states in a news release.

The list of potential driver distractions is endless. The North Carolina Driver’s Manual — the Division of Motor Vehicles handbook new drivers use to study for their road tests — includes nearly a full page of warnings against drowsy driving, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates may cause up to 6,000 crashes a year. Yet no lawmakers have filed bills seeking to crack down on the chronically tired.

Making drivers safer is laudable, but why arbitrarily define some distractions as worse than others? And how many laws will it take to criminalize every conceivable risk?

Some legislators seem to sense the inherent flaws in taking a piecemeal approach. Senate leader Phil Berger’s office told WRAL-TV that the Senate Republican Caucus is divided on the issue, which may doom the bill’s chances of ever emerging from committee.

Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, filed the Hands-Free N.C. Act as Senate Bill 20 back in January. It’s a retread of a 2019 bill that prompted similar objections.

SB 20 would allow drivers to use voice-activated systems to make and receive phone calls and operate GPS navigation apps. But not everyone has a late-model car with Bluetooth wireless integration, and not all cellphones are voice-activated smartphones. Could allowing hands-free technology and forbidding handheld phone use constitute a form of discrimination against poorer and less tech-savvy drivers?

Instead of declaring some driver distractions crimes based on little more than emotion, the General Assembly should work to attack the problem at its root by improving the driver education curriculum, beefing up the DMV handbook and including distracted driving questions on written driver tests. Could education and voluntary compliance work as well as prosecution?

In truth, most motorists multitask behind the wheel — just ask a parent shuttling kids off to school and sports practices while running errands. Government should encourage drivers to consider their precious cargo and reduce distractions to the greatest extent possible. But crimes and traffic infractions ought to be reserved for behavior that causes genuine harm to people and property.

Instead of writing tickets for every risk that could contribute to theoretical future crashes, authorities should weigh distractions as aggravating factors that result in steep consequences when they actually cause wrecks.

If the goal is really deterrence rather than soaking motorists for cash fines and court costs, wouldn’t charge enhancements for distracted driving crashes serve the same prevention purpose as a ban on handheld cellphone use?

We join Commissioner Causey in urging drivers to put down their phones, avoid distractions and focus on the road. More education, not more enforcement, is the best way to make our highways safer.

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