WDAY: The News Leader

Published March 28, 2011, 03:12 PM

ND Senate approves distracted driving penalties

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Faced with two proposals aimed at prohibiting drivers from sending text messages while behind the wheel, the North Dakota Senate on Monday endorsed both of them — while softening the penalties they included.

Senators voted 32-15 to approve legislation that bans texting while driving and sets a $100 penalty for all violations.

At the urging of Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, other penalties were removed from the texting bill, including a two-point penalty against the driver's license of a first offender; a four-point penalty for subsequent violations; and a year's license suspension for anyone caught texting while driving at least three times.

A motorist who accumulates 12 penalty points on his or her driver's license faces a suspension for at least one week.

Sen. David Nething, R-Jamestown, said 30 states have banned texting while driving. Two North Dakota cities, Grand Forks and Bismarck, have adopted local ordinances to prohibit it, Nething said.

"It can't be all bad," Nething said of the proposed ban. "As a matter of fact, I submit to you that it's a pretty good bill."

Separately, the Senate voted 41-6 to overhaul a proposed law against distracted driving that was intended to penalize a driver who caused an accident by taking his or her eyes off the road. Violations carried a $100 fine.

The new measure, offered during Monday's Senate debate by Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, rewrote the definition of an existing driving offense called "care required." The changes, Mathern said, would make the law easier to enforce, and would include other driving distractions besides texting.

The changes make it illegal to drive in a careless, imprudent or inattentive manner; "without having due regard to the existing conditions;" without "giving warnings as are reasonably necessary for safe operation," such as signaling one's turns and lane changes, or "in a manner that creates a hazard to the life, limb or property of any person."

A person violating the law could be fined $30 to $50, at the officer's discretion. Two penalty points would be assessed against the driver's license.

The changes "would create a situation where we take our attention off of the item that is maybe problematic, to the behavior of the driver that might be causing unsafe driving conditions for themselves or for other motorists," Mathern said.

Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, said the practices that the measure prohibits are already against North Dakota law.

"To me, it clutters the waters so you can't see the bottom," Lyson said.

Both bills now return to the North Dakota House, to see if representatives agree with changes made by the Senate. If they decline to accept them, a conference committee of three House and three Senate members will attempt to work out the differences.

The texting-while-driving ban is HB1195. The "distracted driving" bill is HB1190.