Hands-free law goes into effect Wednesday


While riding on a bicycle on County Road 600E just south of Seymour, Nate Otte saw a vehicle coming across the road directly at him.

He had to crash into a ditch to avoid colliding with it.

“It didn’t stop, and I doubt the driver ever saw me,” he said. “It was on a flat, open stretch of road on a day with good visibility. I wasn’t injured, but my bike was damaged.”

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A couple of months earlier, he was involved in a collision with another driver who didn’t see him. He walked away with only mild injuries and another broken bicycle.

“I ride with a radar to alert me to cars approaching from behind, but both accidents have been head-on,” he said. “It’s pretty scary to have a vehicle suddenly in front of you and to know there isn’t a good way to get out of the situation. My days of riding alone on the road are over. There’s way more at stake for a cyclist in a collision on the open road than a driver.”

It’s possible the driver in both situations either was using a cellphone or was distracted in some other way.

On Wednesday, Indiana joins 23 other states in prohibiting people from holding a cellphone while operating a motor vehicle. Violations are a Class C infraction with fines of up to $500.

Using these devices will remain legal if hands-free technology, such as Bluetooth or a cradle, is utilized. There also is no infraction if the driver is calling 911 to report an emergency.

The new law has not received a substantial amount of public attention, so state officials say motorists ticketed before July 1, 2021, will not receive points on their license, which can lead to license suspension.

Last winter, House Bill 1070, authored by State Rep. Holli Sullivan, R-Evansville, breezed through the House of Representatives and Senate. The votes were taken after several Hoosiers packed into hearing rooms to share how their lives have been forever changed by distracted driving collisions. The bill was signed March 18 by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Distracted driving has become a growing concern expressed by lawmakers for several years, especially with young and inexperienced drivers. Indiana began graduated licensing laws in 2009 that require new drivers to have 50 hours of supervised driving hours, including 10 hours at night.

Today, new motorists are restricted from late-night driving, having passengers and operating wireless electronic devices, including radios and CD players, for their first six months of driving.

Texting behind the wheel is considered the most widely acknowledged form of distracted driving, something that has been illegal in Indiana since July 2011.

That law, however, is very difficult to enforce because it’s almost impossible to prove in court that someone was texting while driving.

Instead of texting while driving, police often have chosen to write up drivers on cellphones for the moving violation that caught the officer’s attention.

Good tool for local police

Local law enforcement officials say the new law is a positive.

Seymour Police Department Chief Bryant Lucas said it has not been common for officers to stop a motorist for texting and driving because they couldn’t prove the person was using the phone for that reason.

The way the new law is written gives officers a little more latitude, he said.

“It just takes some of the guesswork out and makes it a little easier for officers to actually take action if needed,” Lucas said. “This just kind of clarifies some of that and makes it a little bit easier. It’s not guessing. The law makes it pretty clear that you can’t hold the phone and drive.”

It’s easy for people to get distracted by their cellphone, whether they are texting or talking on it or it vibrates and they pick it up while driving, Lucas said.

“It can be very dangerous, so (the hands-free law) is a way for everybody to know that this is being taken seriously and to give an officer an easier opportunity to prevent people from being hurt by distracted driving,” he said.

Brownstown Police Department Chief Tom Hanner said his officers don’t make a lot of stops for texting and driving, either.

A motorist could say they weren’t texting or they were using their phone to get directions, and officers can’t take somebody’s phone to check because it’s an invasion of privacy, he said.

The hands-free law, however, is going to simplify things for law enforcement, Hanner said.

“It’s not going to be very hard. If somebody is holding a phone, it’s just the bottom line, so that’s going to make it a lot easier,” he said. “That really simplifies things if you’re going to be making a stop and that’s your reason for the stop.”

If people would put their phones down while driving, Hanner said there would be a lot less accidents.

“I call it an addiction,” he said of motorists using their phones while driving. “Too much of something is a bad thing. Always use in moderation any cellphone device.”

Jackson County Sheriff Rick Meyer also is in favor of the new law.

“Previously, it was hard to determine whether a person was texting or dialing a number. Before, it was just you couldn’t text and drive,” he said. “Now, if we see you with a phone in your hand, we know for sure you’re doing something that’s not legal.”

He hopes the new law helps cut down on accidents.

“This is going to be a good law because distracted driving causes a lot of accidents,” Meyer said. “Being out here every day, we see a lot of terrible accidents. If we can save lives, that’s what it’s all about. I think it will be a positive thing.”

Residents react

Local residents also shared their thoughts on the new law.

Brandy Babbs of Seymour said when she was 16, she was involved in a collision at an intersection. The other driver dropped her cellphone, reached for it on her floorboard and didn’t realize the stoplight turned red.

“She hit me straight in my door so hard all four tires were ripped off my car and I was pushed into another car and the EMT had a hard time opening my door to get to me,” she said. “Luckily, I was able to walk away and only sustained whiplash, but it could have been so much worse.”

Other times over the years, Babbs said she has nearly been hit by people using their phones while driving. Luckily, they looked up at the last second and went off into the grass next to her.

“I think the law is well overdue around here, but unfortunately, it won’t solve all the problems with distracted drivers,” Babbs said. “People will find a way to sneakily be on their phones, and loads of people are looking every which way but forward. But I’m hoping the law is a step in the right direction.”

Ron Rieckers of Brownstown said when he was the postmaster in town, he would walk from there to the bank to get change.

About five different times, he said he almost was hit while crossing U.S. 50.

“They would be on the cellphone and would turn off of Walnut Street onto 50 as I was crossing,” he said. “A couple of times, they got so close I could have reached out and opened their doors. They were so busy talking that they never even saw me despite coming within inches of me. This law is way overdue.”

Otte said while he’s glad to see the new law, he’s not sure he will feel any safer on his bicycle.

“In town, it’s easy to spot people looking down at their phone. It’s a different story out in the country,” he said. “Hopefully, the law will bring top-of-mind awareness to drivers, and with time, we will see a change in behavior.”

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Every year in North America, an estimated 1.6 million crashes occur as the result of driver inattention.

Many of those crashes result in injury or death and an economic impact of around $40 billion.

Making a phone call while driving may increase your odds of being in a crash by as much as 400%.

Typing or reading a text takes your eyes off the road an average of 5 seconds. If you drive 55 mph, you will travel the length of a football field in that same period.

Source: Indiana State Police


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