State lawmakers are again considering stiffening the penalties for texting while driving or talking on a cell phone behind the wheel without a hands-free device.
The legislature’s Transportation Committee moved to schedule a hearing on two bills during a meeting Wednesday morning. If either passed, it would be the second time in two years the legislature hiked fines on drivers using their cell phones on the road.
A 2013 bill raised the fines for distracted driving to $150 for the first offense, $300 for the second offense, and $500 for all subsequent tickets.
Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, is seeking to double each of those amounts under one of the two bills.
“Double it all the way up and maybe they’ll get the message that people’s lives are worth a helluva a lot more than cellphones,” he said in a Thursday interview. Nicastro said the bill stems from an encounter with an emotional constituent at a local restaurant.
“Her son, 37-years-old, got killed while texting. He left behind his wife and two beautiful children. She told me we should make the law stiffer,” Nicastro said. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe it was the right thing to do. People have to understand there are consequences for actions.”
Another bill, raised by Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, ups the consequences for distracted driving more significantly. Ziobron’s bill calls for making the penalties for the crime more comparable to the penalties for drunk driving. Under Connecticut law, drunk drivers can serve prison time, have their licenses suspended, and can face as much as $8,000 in fines.
Ziobron said she did not have a specific penalty in mind, but believes fines alone are not an adequate deterrent.
“When you look at the current penalties for texting—it’s a little bit of a slap on the wrist. I see folks texting and driving and it’s so dangerous,” she said.
The penalties did not necessarily have to include prison time, but Ziobron said it was something the lawmakers should consider.
“I just think there needs to be a harsh penalty,” she said. “If someone is a habitual texter and has been caught texting six times, and they’ve caused someone injury—should they face jail time? Maybe. It’s a discussion for legislature.”
Asked about increasing the penalties for distracted driving Wednesday, Transportation Committee co-chairman Rep. Antonio Guerrera was non-committal but said the proposals would get public hearings. The Transportation Committee has until March 2 to hold public hearings on its proposals.
South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed, a legislative liaison for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said reducing distracted driving remains a challenge for Connecticut law enforcement. Some believe higher fines have an unintended consequence of making police less likely to issue a ticket, he said.
“It’s hard to hand someone a ticket for a hundred bucks let alone $300. But I don’t know what the solution is for texting while driving. I think we, as law enforcement, have to come up with a different strategy for discouraging it,” he said.
This session’s legislation on distracted driving has not been limited to proposals on harsher penalties. Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, has proposed legislation expanding the definition of distracted driving to include people driving with a pet on their lap.