Legislation that would ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving passed a Louisiana House panel of Monday morning.
However, the new law would be a secondary offense, which means a violator could only be cited if stopped for another offense.
The measure, House Bill 787, cleared the House Transportation Committee 9-7.
Similar bills have emerged from the committee in the past but died later in the legislative process.
State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge and sponsor of the bill, said she saw a young woman driving on an interstate on Sunday traveling about 50 miles per hour while talking on a cell phone.
“I watched the number of cars that went around because she just would not get into the slower lane,” Barrow told the committee.
“Sometimes people get so engulfed in conversation they literally forget they are driving,” Barrow said.
State Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, who voted against the bill, said drivers are guilty of a wide range of distractions, including reading the newspaper, drinking coffee and men adjusting neckties. Norton said she does not see why cell phones should be singled out.
Bobby Breeland, traffic safety program contractor for the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, said 52 fatalities involving cell phones and driving took place on state roads between 2005-09.
But Breeland said 111 other fatalities involved separate driver distractions.
“That can be things like talking to a passenger, tuning a radio, fooling with kids in the back seat,” he said. “Just anything inside the vehicle of a distractive nature.”
However, Breeland said highway accidents involving cell phones are under reported in Louisiana and nationwide.
State Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette backed Barrow’s bill but said call phones are a “popular industry to pick on.”
He added, “We should be working toward eliminating all distractions in the vehicle.”
Under questioning, Barrow said she made her proposal a secondary offense – not the sole reason that a motorist could be stopped – because “baby steps” are needed to make the change.