Attention motorists: put down your cell phones.
Beginning Wednesday, driving while holding a cellphone will be against the law in Indiana, a change local law enforcement officials welcome.
“It will make it easier for us to enforce the law of no texting and help us make sure you’re keeping your eyes on the road,” said city police chief Bob Dunham.
The new law prohibits drivers from holding a cell phone while operating a vehicle with the exception of emergency calls made to 911.
Motorists are still allowed to use hands-free technology such as Bluetooth or a cradle to hold their devices.
Indiana already has a ban on texting while driving, but officials say it has been difficult to enforce and doesn’t include language that prevents actions such as emailing, viewing videos or using apps.
The new bill broadens the state's current ban on texting while driving.
Sgt. Todd Ringle of the Indiana State Police called the current no-texting law practically “unenforceable” and says it’s resulted in very few citations across the state.
Dunham, too, said "the way the old law was written made it hard to got to court and prove a case.”
What made the offense so difficult to prove, according to Knox County Sheriff Doug Vantlin, is that law enforcement personnel cannot legally search a person’s phone without a warrant, thereby making it difficult to prove someone was texting while driving.
The new hands-free bill broadens the state’s current ban on texting while driving and only requires that an officer see a cell phone in the hands of a driver to have reason to stop them and write a citation.
"I liken hands-free to seatbelt laws," the sheriff said. "If we see you don't have a seatbelt on, we can stop you, issue a ticket. With this, if you're seen holding your device in your hand, we could stop you.”
Distracted driving was to blame in at least 860 injury crashes across Indiana last year, according to the Indiana State Police, but not all were a result of using cell phones.
Ringle acknowledges that not all distracted driving crashes and fatalities are a result of cell phone use.
However, he says the vast majority of states with hands-free laws have seen a reduction in highway fatalities.
“The average reduction in fatalities has been around 15%, so if that holds true for Indiana, that’s 130 fewer fatalities,” said Ringle.
The state trooper says he and other officers hope the new law will make that kind of significant difference.
“I think a lot of people will obey the new law,” Ringle said. “The vast majority of people know that it is dangerous to use their phones while driving, but a lot of times it takes a law to do what you should do.”
Ringle, who conducted a poll via Twitter earlier this week, found that 82% of his nearly 900 respondents agreed that the hands-free law should be supported.
“The whole ideas is to protect the public, and sometimes you have to protect people from themselves,” he said. “I think this is a step in the right direction.”
The hands-free bill will make violations a ticketed infraction with a maximum $500 fine.