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SMITHFIELD — State Reps. Larry Strickland and Donna White, both Republicans who represent Johnston County, are co-sponsors of House Bill 144, the Hands-Free N.C. Act.
The bill seeks to prohibit drivers from using handheld electronic devices like cellphones while operating a vehicle and watching, recording or broadcasting photos while driving.
Drivers would be allowed to use their phones through hands-free functions like speakerphone and Bluetooth.
“As a co-sponsor of this bill, I would like to ask for support from the public,” said Strickland. “As we all know, the safety of our citizens and students is paramount. With the history of teen driving in Johnston County, I was more than happy to sign on to a bill such as this.”
“Since I came to the General Assembly, I have worked on bills regarding distracted driving,” said White. “I have continued to work with the Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Insurance to seek solutions and will continue to be a sponsor of HB 144.”
White said distracted driving has caused 75 percent of crashes involving Johnston County teen drivers over the past 10 years.
“I applaud the bill and hope that it will pass,” said White.
But Republican House Majority Leader John Bell, who represents Wayne and Johnston counties, is not an HB 144 sponsor and is not yet ready to endorse it.
Bell spokesman Jimmy Milstead said Bell feels there are a number of questions regarding enforcement, affordability, safety and impact on business that must be addressed.
The legislation was discussed at a recent VIP luncheon for JoCo Teen Drivers at the Johnston County Johnston Agricultural Center.
The luncheon was given in honor of students and sponsors who volunteered their time to promote teen driving safety in Johnston County, The organization was established in 2010 and is a student-led program.
“Most people are affected by car accidents,” said Tracy Anderson, program coordinator for N.C. Vision Zero. “People have felt genuine concern about recent shark attacks on the news. But the greatest threat to people is the drive to the beach.”
N.C. Vision Zero is a collaborative initiative to eliminate road deaths and injuries in North Carolina.
Former Gov. Pat McCrory launched Vision Zero in October 2016, along with former Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson. The goal is to cut road fatalities and serious injuries in half over a 15-year period, with a long-term target of zero deaths on North Carolina roads and highways.
Anderson cited drunken driving and speeding along with distracted driving as major factors in traffic fatalities.
In 2018, there were 1,430 traffic fatalities in North Carolina and 4,572 serious injuries, said Anderson. That’s why her organization supports House Bill 144.
“Georgia passed a similar hands-free bill in 2018 and saw a 3.4 percent reduction in traffic fatalities from the previous year, the largest decrease in 10 years,’” said Anderson. “It’s time for our elected officials to take similar steps to protect North Carolinians by passing House Bill 144. This would go a long way in addressing distracted driving in our state.”
Anderson said nearly 96 percent of North Carolinians agree that using a mobile phone while driving is as bad as driving while intoxicated. She said more than three-quarters of state residents support a hands-free law.
“It’s time to act on this issue now,” said Anderson.
Anderson told adults at the JoCo Teen Drivers luncheon that parents play a key role in encouraging safe driving habits in their teenage children.
“Parents need to be engaged in whatever their children do, and that includes driving,” said Anderson. “They can encourage positive driving habits.”
The participating JoCo Teen Drivesr high schools are Clayton, Cleveland, Corinth Holders, North Johnston, Princeton, Smithfield-Selma, South Johnston and West Johnston, along with the Johnston County Early College Academy and the Johnston County Career and Technical Leadership Academy.
Students from each school created displays exhibiting projects their JoCo Teen Driver chapters used to promote safe teen driving.
North Johnston High students created their own mock traffic crash. Students put together their own script, gathered materials for the simulation and participated as actors.
Corinth Holders students observed National Teen Drivers Week by using goggles that simulate impairment. Students tried to walk a straight line and throw a ball.
Smithfield-Selma High JoCo Teen Drivers students also had classmates wear the impairment goggles and try to walk.
Princeton High students spoke to their peers about driving to the prom and how to be safe afterwards. They also will have an exhibit at the annual Princeton Community Day in June and educated Princeton Elementary pupils about safe driving.
The JoCo Teen Drivers group also presented three students with $100 scholarships, courtesy of Blinson Insurance Center, Stephenson Insurance and Nationwide Insurance.
Recipients are Madison Bishop of Cleveland High School; Israel Vazquez of the Johnston County Early College Academy and Xiomara Rodriguez of North Johnston High School.