The Journal Gazette
Thursday, December 03, 2015 5:27 am

The right call?

Plenty of people were surprised when a new law hit the books this month forbidding all drivers younger than 21 to use cellphones. Young drivers, parents ... and at least some legislators.

"I didn’t remember that happening," Rep. Dan Leonard told The Journal Gazette’s Niki Kelly. "There seems to be more and more times where people are not being forthright with what’s in their bills," the Huntington Republican said.

It is impossible for each legislator to read and analyze each bill he or she votes on. But even a law professor might have been hard-pressed to pick up on all the provisions of this one. The official summary on the Indiana Legislature’s website never even mentions the word cellphone. And, as Kelly reported, the cellphone ban received no discussion as the bill went through the House and Senate. 

That’s too bad, because it doesn’t appear to have been a case involving nefarious intentions.

As awareness of the terrible toll of distracted driving has risen, every state has enacted laws to limit the use of cellphones by drivers. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states and the District of Columbia prohibit cellphone use by all drivers. Indiana and 43 other states forbid drivers of any age to text. Indiana’s rules for drivers younger than 18, which include a ban on cellphone use, have been credited for helping reduce auto accidents and deaths. 

HB 1394, introduced by Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, was billed as an effort to extend the benefits of the probationary-driver rules. As more teens wait until  their 18th birthday to get a driver’s license, safety advocates saw a gap that needed to be plugged. Eighteen-, 19- or 20-year-olds driving for the first time might benefit from the same graduated rules that apply to under-18s for the first 180 days after they receive their licenses. Those rules set limits on new drivers’ passengers and driving hours.

But in addition to extending those short-term prohibitions, HB 1394 extended the ban on cellphone use from drivers younger than 18 to all drivers younger than 21 – regardless of when those drivers received their licenses.

Obviously, this provision would have merited some discussion.

Is an up-to-five-year ban on cellphone use by new drivers too long? Should 19- and 20-year-olds who have been driving and using cellphones for the past one or two years be grandfathered out of the rule? Should there be exceptions for young employees who must use their cellphones for work? What about the use of GPS devices embedded in smartphones? Or music? Should hands-free calls be allowed?  

Perhaps after discussion and debate, legislators would have answered "no" to all those questions. Perhaps the public, alerted to the proposal wending its way through the legislature, would have expressed its support – or suggested alternative ways to address the problem.

But none of that happened, because intentionally or not, the bill’s sponsors appear never to have called public attention to its most controversial provision. Legislating in the dark is never a good practice, even for the best of motives. Let’s hope this legal sleight of hand doesn’t actually set back the safer driving movement.

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