HARTFORD, Conn. — Frustrated by drivers who ignore Connecticut's ban on talking and texting on hand-held cellphones, some state legislators want insurance companies to know when their customers break the law.
Lawmakers hope the prospect of higher insurance rates will finally encourage people to hang up and drive.
"When someone gets hit in the pocketbook, that's when you remember it," said Rep. Antonio "Tony" Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee. "That's the key here, I think, to end up having some type of reporting system on that."
A bill supported by the committee's Democratic and Republican leaders and awaiting action in the House of Representatives would add distracted driving violations to the list of moving violations that would be made available to insurance companies. Currently, if someone violates the distracted driving law, they have to pay a fine and their insurer is none the wiser.
"It's just a standard infraction," said Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, the ranking House Republican on the Transportation Committee. "You pay the fine and it's gone away from your record."
Susan Giacalone, counsel for the Insurance Association of Connecticut, said how insurers would use such information and how the violations could affect a driver's rates vary by company. But she said the association in general welcomes any legislation that helps to reduce accidents, such as the cellphone ban concept.
"We want safer roads, safer drivers," she said.
Besides providing information about violations to insurers, the bill also increases fines. They now range from $125 to $300, depending on the number of past offenses. Under the proposed legislation, however, they would range from $150 to $400.
Guerrera said he's dismayed to see so many people still texting and driving, or talking on a hand-held cellphone without a hands-free device since Connecticut passed its first version of a cellphone ban in 2005. In February, the Transportation Committee heard from the girlfriend of a Norwalk jogger, 44-year-old Kenneth Dorsey, who was struck and killed last year by a 16-year-old driver who was accessing her school's website on her mobile phone.
Dawn Jeffrey urged the committee members to toughen state laws and embark on a public awareness campaign to better educate people about the dangers of distracted driving.
"Ken's death was preventable. It was unnecessary and it was devastating," she told lawmakers. "As Connecticut's legislative body, I implore you to think of your child, yourself, your best friend to be as much at risk as Ken was and continue to make Connecticut a leader in preventing these senseless deaths."
Scribner said lawmakers have been relatively lenient with cellphone scofflaws over the years. For example, the legislature originally agreed to allow first-time offenders to have fines waived if they showed proof that they purchased a hands-free device. But he said there's been a growing increase in violations and legislators want people to understand there will now be multiple consequences, particularly for repeat offenders.
"We're trying to find various ways that will, in truth, deter people from violating that law," he said. "Nationwide, it has surpassed the cause of death of even DUIs, which is really sad. You can't even isolate a certain segment of the population. It's pretty much across-the-board. I've seen people who look like they're in their 70s driving down the road on the phone."
The bill also creates a task force to study distracted driving prevention, such as the effectiveness of existing laws, enforcement efforts and efforts in other states. The group will develop recommendations for legislative changes in Connecticut by Jan. 1.
Also this session, lawmakers are considering a separate bill that could bring the state about $350,000 to $500,000 a year in new federal distracted driving prevention funds. Connecticut is currently ineligible for the money, and the Department of Transportation has asked the General Assembly to make several changes to existing law so the state can receive the money.
For example, the state's current ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving only applies when a vehicle is in motion. Federal officials are requiring state cellphone bans to apply when a vehicle is also at rest, such as at a stoplight.
Connecticut also must mandate that questions pertaining to distracted driving and motorists' use of phones be required on driver licensing exams. Even though it is being done in practice, the state is not officially in compliance with the federal requirement.
Lawmakers will also have to change an exception to the current hand-held phone ban for ham radio operators. Federal rules allow exceptions only for emergency services and military personnel during emergency situations in order to be eligible for the grant funds.
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