Updated: March 7, 2014 at 8:02 am
DENVER — A Colorado lawmaker who's gotten complaints from constituents about drivers distracted by their cellphones is proposing banning their use in cars unless people use a hands-free device.
State law already forbids texting while driving, but Democratic Rep. Jovan Melton said it doesn't prohibit people from fiddling on their phones.
"So technically you could be sitting in traffic playing Angry Birds — and that's totally legal," said Melton, who represents Aurora.
Melton's bill, scheduled for a committee hearing next week, would prohibit people from using apps on their phone, and they could only make calls using a hands-free device or if it's an emergency.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia already ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Illinois, where the law took effect Jan. 1, stores reported a jump in sales for hands-free devices like ear pieces and microphone visor clips.
Texting while driving is banned in 41 states and D.C., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Melton points to data from the Colorado State Patrol that he said highlights the problem of distracted driving. In 2008, nearly 5,000 of the approximately 27,200 accidents were a result of inattentive drivers. The state patrol investigates about 30 percent of Colorado car accidents.
"It's great that people are connected and that the smartphone is able to do so much. But in some ways the smartphone is doing too much," Melton said.
During the previous year, there have been 515 citations in Colorado for texting while driving, according to legislative analysts working on Melton's bill. The law took effect in December 2009.
Like with the texting ban, using a hand-held cellphone while driving would be punishable by a $50 fine for the first offense and a $100 fine for the second. The violation would be considered a secondary offense, meaning the law enforcement could issue a citation for using a cellphone only if a driver was stopped for something else.
Republican Rep. Ray Scott, a lawmaker on the Transportation and Energy Committee, which will hear Melton's bill, said he wants to hear testimony and statistics on accident trends before deciding whether to support the proposal.
Scott, who is from Grand Junction, said he uses the built-in blue-tooth technology in his car to talk on his cellphone during the hours-long commute to Denver each week.
"I find it to be very, very useful," he said, adding that he can easily voice dial.
"That's the whole point is it's a very valuable tool for businesspeople and for anybody that travels, so we certainly don't want to restrict people to where they can't use their phones at all," he said. "But at the same time, we gotta keep it safe out there."
Melton said it's tough not to be distracted by cellphones, acknowledging that it's a challenge for him as well.
"I'm just as tempted to look at an email or read a text message when I hear my phone go off," he said.