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Four years ago, Nikki Cline of Pilot Mountain received a phone call. Her son, Christian “Gage” Edwards, hadn’t shown up to his girlfriend’s house to pick her up, so Cline went out looking for him.
“I stumbled upon his wreck,” Cline recalls. “His car was mangled. He ran off the road, overcorrected and hit two trees.”
Gage, 17, passed away two days later. Cline learned that her son was speeding before he wrecked but that he had also been texting.
“We looked at the phone and his last text was to me,” Cline says. “He was just a few miles from our home. He was a three-sport athlete, loving and outgoing, a force to be reckoned with. His death affected more than just our family. It affected our entire community.”
Cline is working with parents and advocates across the state who have lost family members to accidents involving cell phone use while driving. They support a bill, H 144 or the Hands Free NC Act, that would make it illegal to hold your cell phone in your hands for any purpose—talking, texting, using social media, watching videos or playing games—while driving. Though you could still use your phone for navigation, phone calls or listening to music, under the bill, the phone would have to be mounted to or installed in your car. Violators of the law, which could go into effect next year, would face increasingly severe penalties, including fines and insurance points.
“The Hands Free Act goes at a major distraction, mobile devices, in a way that’s sensible and enforceable,” says Rep. Kevin Corbin, a Republican from Franklin, NC, who owns an insurance agency and is one of the primary sponsors of the bill. “We’ve crafted this legislation to create a consequence to discourage this type of behavior. Our goal is not thousands of tickets written, but thousands of crashes, injuries and deaths to be prevented.”
Distracted driving fatalities are on the rise according to crash statistics from North Carolina’s Department of Transportation. In 2016, 177 fatalities were reported across the state, in addition to thousands of injuries. A large, bipartisan group of lawmakers supports H 144, as does the majority of the public; polling from the Institute for Transportation Research and Education found 77 percent of North Carolinians support a hands-free law, and 95.5 percent agree using a mobile phone while driving is just as bad as drunk driving, according to a poll from the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina.
Proponents of the bill point to a hands-free law Georgia passed last July. Traffic fatalities came down in that state by 3.4 percent from 2017 to 2018, the largest decrease in 10 years according to Georgia DOT statistics. Phone use while driving was reported to have dropped in Georgia by 22 percent in the first month that the law was in effect.
But some people don’t feel that North Carolina’s hands-free bill goes far enough.
“Cell phone companies can stop [distracted driving] in a second,” says Ben Levitan, a telecommunications expert who holds a patent in a technical method he says could be introduced into cell phone networks to prevent people from sending or receiving text messages while driving. “You have to mandate that cell phone companies add this feature. It’s a very easy technical change you could put into a cell phone.”
Jennifer Smith, the CEO of nonprofit StopDistractions.Org, says getting people to put their phones down while driving is a much more achievable short-term solution. Indeed, North Carolina already has a law on the books making texting while driving illegal, but the law is written so narrowly that it’s functionally unenforceable.
“[Hands-free NC] is not the perfect solution,” Smith says. “Getting drivers off the phone altogether would be, but we live in America and people like to be free and not told what to do, so this is a step-by-step process.”
As of late last month, H 144 is winding its way through various House committees and is expected to pass in the House. It could potentially face opposition from conservative Republicans with libertarian leanings in the state Senate; similar bills introduced in past legislative sessions have failed. But families like Cline’s who have lost loved ones to distracted driving say they will continue to lobby lawmakers to vote for the bill.
“[Texting while driving] is a selfish choice,” Cline says. “[People] don’t think that someone has to go and tell their family [their loved one] is no longer here, about families sitting beside a hospital bed praying for a miracle. I’m sure there are millions of people out there who text and drive and get away with it but they don’t understand they are not invincible. This can happen to anybody and it will destroy your life.”
To contact your state Senator or Representative regarding H 144, or to follow the bill’s progress, visit ncleg.gov
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