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Published March 17, 2011, 07:21 PM

Competing ND Bills Target Texting While Driving

Minot Rep. Dan Ruby used a cell phone and a sheet of paper Thursday to illustrate the North Dakota Legislature's debate about the best way to deter motorists from sending text messages as they drive.

By: Associated Press,

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Minot Rep. Dan Ruby used a cell phone and a sheet of paper Thursday to illustrate the North Dakota Legislature's debate about the best way to deter motorists from sending text messages as they drive.

Ruby is the chief sponsor of legislation that establishes a new "distracted driving" traffic offense, with a $100 penalty for violators. It does not explicitly ban texting while driving, but it would punish motorists who cause accidents by taking their eyes off the road.

The bill is an alternative to a proposal introduced by Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, that would specifically prohibit motorists from using their cell phones to send text messages while they are driving.

"If I'm texting, or I'm reading this," Ruby said, holding up his cell phone, "that's a crime. But if I'm reading this while I'm driving," he continued, holding up a copy of his own bill, "it's just as much of a distraction, but it's fine. There's nothing wrong with it, according to our law, if we pass the texting ban."

Ruby, a Republican, told the North Dakota Senate's Transportation Committee that Klemin's bill would also allow police to stop motorists who were legally using their phones to make calls — instead of sending illegal text messages — because it would be difficult for officers to tell the difference.

The Transportation Committee held hearings on both bills, and did not take immediate action on either.

Under Klemin's bill, first offenders would be fined $100 and have two penalty points assessed against their drivers' licenses. A second offender would get a four-point penalty. Drivers who accumulate 12 or more points have their licenses suspended.

The legislation would allow police to pull over motorists if they were observed texting while driving. Ruby's is a "secondary enforcement" law, which means police could not stop an allegedly distracted driver unless he or she first committed another traffic offense.

Klemin's proposal attracted more support at Thursday's hearings. An insurance executive, a high school student and Bismarck Police Chief Keith Witt were among those who spoke in its favor. Only Ruby and a cosponsor, Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, testified in favor of his measure.

"By taking a stand on the issue, and making it illegal, we set the standard for acceptable behavior," Dale Haake, a claims director for Nodak Mutual Insurance Co. of Fargo, said of Klemin's bill.

The cities of Grand Forks and Bismarck have approved local texting-while-driving bans. Carrie Sandstrom, 16, a junior at Bismarck Century High School, said Thursday the Bismarck ordinance had prompted her to stop texting while driving, even though she had done so before despite her parents' orders. She predicted a state law would have the same effect for all North Dakota teenagers.

"As soon as the (Bismarck) regulations were passed, I put the phone down. My peers did, and others did too," Sandstrom said.

Witt spoke in favor of Klemin's bill, while expressing skepticism about Ruby's approach.

"You almost have to have something bad happening before you have a violation, instead of saying, just this specific conduct (texting), in and of itself, is illegal," Witt said.

Ruby's bill is HB1190. Klemin's bill is HB1195.

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