State lawmakers heard testimony on several bills Monday that aim to make Connecticut roads safer by cutting down on “distracted driving.”
Two bills before the Committee on Transportation seek to raise the fine paid by anyone who texts while driving. Another aims to increase the fine for using cellphones or other electronic devices while behind the wheel, and a third would prohibit open containers of alcohol from being consumed in vehicles.
Proponents say the bills would reduce the number of distracted drivers on the road.
The Committee on Transportation gave elected officials and members of the public the chance to weigh in on the measures – and more than 70 other bills – at a public hearing Monday at the Legislative Office Building.
When it comes to distracting drivers, texting is almost like driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, said Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam. She testified in support of a bill she has introduced that, if passed, would increase penalties for texting while driving so they would mirror the penalties for driving while intoxicated.
“I’ve become increasingly alarmed at the pervasive use of texting” and the danger it poses behind the wheel, she said. “There is no penalty beyond a fine for multiple offenses of texting while driving.”
Driving under the influence is punishable in by fines, prison time and license suspensions.
This isn’t the first time the issue of texting while driving has come before the committee, said Chairman Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill.
“It’s an epidemic. This committee has tried to do as much as possible,” he said, including reaching out to auto insurers asking them to crack down on those who text while driving by raising their insurance rates. “I see the frustration here; we see it every day.”
Penalties for texting while driving are meaningless unless they are rigorously enforced, he said.
In addition to Ziobron’s bill, a separate bill introduced by Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, aims to increase fines for texting while driving but that bill does not propose specific amounts.
Another bill discussed at Monday’s public hearing would increase fines for using electronic devices like cellphones while driving.
Under current state statutes, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle while using a hand-held cellphone or similar electronic device. Anyone who does faces a fine of $100 for the first violation, $150 for the second and $200 for a third or subsequent violation.
A bill introduced by Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, aims to increase the fine for such violations by $100 in each instance. A first-time violation would cost $200, a second one would be $250 and subsequent ones would be $300.
Brandon Dufour, general manager of All-Star Driver, the largest chain of driving schools in the state, testified that he supports any bill that would reduce distracted driving but “it doesn’t stop at the law; enforcement will be necessary.”
Texting and making phone calls while driving is a “cultural issue” that needs to be addressed, he added. His company, based in Watertown, has banned all cellphone use in its corporately owned cars.
A separate bill addressed at the hearing pertains to distracted driving but has nothing to do with cellphone use or texting. Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, has introduced legislation that would prohibit open containers of alcohol from being consumed within motor vehicles.
The bill would reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes and fatalities, Bolinsky testified. It would prohibit, for instance, people from drinking in a car where one friend is the designated driver. Even if the driver is not drinking, it can be distracting to him or her if others in the car are intoxicated, Bolinsky said.
Guerrera said legislating what people can do in their own cars can be a sensitive topic. Other lawmakers on the committee raised similar concerns.
Another bill, unrelated to distracted driving, that garnered discussion at Monday’s hearing is one that would give Connecticut drivers the option to show electronic proof of auto insurance when they are stopped by police, rather than having to keep paper insurance cards in their vehicles.
Most other states allow drivers to show their proof of insurance electronically on their smartphones said Rep. Gayle Mulligan, R-Hebron, who introduced the Connecticut bill.
Doing so here would cut down on the time police spend on traffic stops and be more convenient for consumers. Most drivers always know where their cellphones are, whereas many have to spend time digging through their glove compartments to locate insurance cards, she said.
Several members of the committee expressed concerns about the measure, specifically whether it would open the door to invasions of privacy if police were permitted to take a driver’s phone to their police car with them to record the insurance information.