MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A new bill that would prohibit any physical use of mobile devices while operating a motor vehicle saw a favorable report in the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee last week.
While texting and driving is currently prohibited under Alabama state law, House Bill 8 would prohibit a driver from physically handling their cell phone in any capacity, and would limit phone use to hands-free operations. Sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, the bill is similar to a bill introduced by former Alabama Rep. K.L. Brown of Jacksonville, which was introduced but failed to pass over the past four consecutive years.
Following the death of 22-year-old Jacksonville State University student Leah Tarvin in late 2022, who was fatally struck by a vehicle while on campus, Wood told Alabama Daily News that he’d heard renewed calls to try to ban cell phone use while driving once more.
Wood said that following the student’s death, Jacksonville Police Chief Marcus Wood personally reached out to him, asking him to carry a new version of Brown’s bill. Brown, who represented Jacksonville as part of District 40, had a personal connection in trying to more strictly regulate cell phone use for drivers.
During the committee meeting last week, Wood made an effort to quell concerns that the bill could be used by police to target minority populations.
“I’ve talked with several minorities, and they agree with me on it; some do, some don’t, but this is not hurting minorities,” Wood told committee members.
“This is a safety factor, we want to protect lives. There’s enough killings and people getting killed already, and a life is very precious; it doesn’t matter to me – black, white, male, female or what – a life is very precious, and every one we save, we’re that much ahead of the game.”
Wood went on to detail a number of modifications to his bill that had been made since its introduction, which included exemptions for private investigators and drivers who have stopped and pulled to the side of the road. Wood also clarified that fines collected from violators of the proposed law would be allocated to the state’s General Fund, and not local courts or municipalities.
Under existing law, a conviction for texting while driving carries a two-point violation on a citizen’s driving record. Wood’s new bill would expand that two-point driving record violation to include any physical use of a mobile device while driving, and add an additional three-point violation for those who see a third conviction within a two-year period.
Regarding fines, current law sees those convicted of texting while driving issued a $25, $50 and $75 fine for their first, second and subsequent violations. The new law would see those fines increased to $100, $200 and $300 for first, second and subsequent violations within a 24-month period, and 15, 30 and 45 hours of community service, respectively.
Alabama drivers are subject to have their license suspended for accumulating 12 points within a two-year period, beginning with a 60-day suspension and increasing with additional point violations.
The bill also includes a number of provisions limiting law enforcement who conduct traffic stops related to the proposed law. They may not access the mobile device without a warrant, confiscate the mobile device, obtain consent from the driver to search the mobile device through coercion or make a custodial arrest solely for phone use.
Committee member Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, told Wood that while he understood the intent behind the bill, he held concerns particularly over the limits it would impose on law enforcement.
“I’ve been here a long time and I’ve seen this bill about a million different ways, and at one point in the legislative process, we get in a situation where we try to take an idea that we have and make it work for everybody, and it gets to a point where it makes it difficult to work for anybody,” England said. “And we are dangerously approaching that threshold right now.”
Despite England’s concerns, the bill ultimately received a unanimous favorable report.
“It’s very simple: this bill is designed to save people’s lives,” Wood told Alabama Daily News. “We’re not trying to control anybody, we’re just trying to save lives. If we can make a difference and we can save one 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 .7% increase from 2019’s figures despite a significant reduction in vehicular travel that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.