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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 1:39 am

Young drivers hit with cell ban

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – It wasn’t just some young adults who were surprised July 1 when restrictions banning cellphone use for drivers younger than 21 went into effect. 

It was lawmakers, too.

"I learned it on the news, but I didn’t remember that happening," said Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington. "There seems to be more and more times where people are not being forthright with what’s in their bills."

He said he tries to read all the bills, but things can always slip by. He doesn’t recall a full discussion on the topic. And if he had been aware of the larger implications, "I think I would have been very hesitant to vote for it."

At least three other lawmakers who voted for the legislation confirmed they did not understand that House Bill 1394 would prohibit cellphones for all drivers younger than 21.

"It’s sweeping," said Josh Gillespie, spokesman for the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. "No one is grandfathered. The telecommunications portion is a big shocker."

He said the BMV did not push for the change.

Before July 1, the state law applied only to teen drivers younger than 18. Now any driver younger than 21 may not use a phone in the car for any reason, including GPS or texting or even listening to music. There is an exception for calling 911. There is no provision allowing hands-free use.

The new legislation was sold as a way to target the increasing number of new drivers who are waiting until they turn 18 or older to get a license. Those drivers then don’t have to follow the state’s graduated driving license law, which limits passengers in the car and nighttime driving as well as cellphone use.

Sherry Deane of AAA Hoosier Motor Club said the fatality rate for drivers between 18 and 21 is rising while the rate has dropped for those younger than 18 – largely credited to the graduated provisions.

Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, was on the House committee that heard the bill and supported it during the session.

He also said he was fully aware of its implications on cellphone use, and he believes crash data support the change.

"Anybody who didn't know that was the intent of the bill when you read it, I mean it's there in black and white," Smaltz said.

The summary of the bill isn’t clear about the expansion of the cellphone ban – simply saying an operator’s license issued to an individual who is less than 21 years of age is a probationary license. Anyone reading the summary would have to know exactly what limits a probationary license entails.

In the House and Senate committee hearings on the bill, there is only one mention of the phone language – one sentence, by Deane.

"The cellphone restriction would apply to all new drivers up to 21," she said.

Not a single question was asked in either committee on the topic.

And it affects more than "new" drivers. Those who have already had their license for several years are also affected. For instance, teenagers who received their licenses at 17 and are now 19 and have been able to use cellphones for a year suddenly aren’t allowed to anymore.

Also, now a driver who gets a license at 16 1/2 – the youngest age eligible – has to wait almost five years to use a cellphone in a vehicle.

"Even for experienced drivers, using the cellphone while driving a car is a great distraction," Smaltz said – though he isn’t ready to support a full cellphone ban on all drivers.

During debates on the bill on the House and Senate floors, there was no discussion of the ban on cellphone use for those younger than 21.

The closest thing to it came from Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, who asked Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield – the bill’s sponsor – "By doing this, are we making a probationary license until age 21?"

Crider said no, adding that it would apply only to those Hoosier teenagers who are waiting until 18 or after to get their license.

But Deane contends lawmakers knew what they were voting on.

She said in one-on-one conversations, she explained about applying the restrictions to those 18 and older. She recited the statistics and that the limitations were only for the first 180 days of having the license.

But the cellphone ban is for much longer than that.

Deane said 18- to 20-year-olds are now the most likely to be involved in a fatal crash, but there are no restrictions on them.

"They are inexperienced, but we are throwing them out to the wolves," she said. "Using the cellphone, even for a very experienced driver, is very dangerous."

One driver affected by the new law is Smaltz’s daughter, Megan.

The 18-year-old thought she had moved past her probationary driver’s license already and was allowed to use her cellphone. But since July 1, she’s back to being banned.

"As someone who is under 21, I’m not excited," she said.

But Megan Smaltz believes her father does his homework, and "if it’s going to help everyone and make a difference, then I guess I understand it."

nkelly@jg.net

Correction

This online version corrects a quote attributed to Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn.