Cell phone ban passes House

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By Susan M. Bryan

SANTA FE — Legislation that would prohibit drivers in New Mexico from using hand-held cell phones for talking or texting was narrowly approved by the House on Tuesday.

The bill would make New Mexico the seventh state to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Some of New Mexico’s largest cities — Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces — already have municipal ordinances that bar cell phone use for drivers.

Under the proposed statewide ban, violators would face a misdemeanor penalty of $25.

“I hold firm that this is a serious safety issue,” Rep. Antonio Lujan, D-Las Cruces, told the House before the 35-30 vote.

Critics of the legislation argued that the state already has laws that address distracted driving and that the use of cell phones qualifies as another distraction, like putting on makeup, eating a hamburger or tending to children in the back seat.

“It’s not just a cell phone. It’s a thought about where you’re going, what you’re planning to do next, daydreaming,” Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Farmington said. “The big problem we have is driver inattention. How do you really cure that problem?”

Critics also argued that it would be difficult to enforce and would be simply a revenue generator for the state.

Lujan said he has been working on the issue for four years because he believes it is a safety issue, not a source of revenue. He pointed to national and state studies that show driver inattention is the leading factor in most crashes and near-crashes.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration. It already has the support of Gov. Bill Richardson, who said in his state-of-the-state speech in January that distracted drivers are a “menace to our streets.”

Supporters of the proposed ban said enacting the legislation would have an impact on driver behavior just like red-light cameras, police cruisers and radar guns.

House Majority Leader W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said the state issues driver’s licenses to people and should have the authority to regulate those drivers when activities they engage in could potentially put others at risk.

However, an insurance industry study released last week by the Highway Loss Data Institute found that state laws banning the use of hand-held devices to make calls or send text messages while driving have not resulted in fewer vehicle crashes.

New Mexico’s proposed ban lists some exceptions for when drivers can use hand-held devices such as to report illegal activity, to summon medical or law enforcement help or to prevent injury to a person or property.