Senate Bill 19 would allow law enforcement officers to write a citation to drivers seen using cellphones to write or read text messages or any other written content while driving or stopped in traffic. Fines would be $25 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses.
“I think the challenge is the prevalence of this conduct by drivers, and we’re all seeing it more and more, is such that we have to send a strong signal here,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, a sponsor of the bill. “I think this bill, although (setting) a very small fine, has the potential to save a lot of lives.”
Wirth noted the proposed $25 citation is equivalent to the ticket for not wearing a seat belt.
The proposal would not prohibit drivers from texting to report an emergency condition, texting through use of a hands-free, voice-activated device or while safely parked on the side of a roadway. The bill also would not affect use of in-car GPS mapping devices while driving.
Forty-one other states already have enacted bans on texting while driving, Wirth said. He cited national statistics that suggest drivers who are texting are 23 times more likely to cause an accident.
But critics expressed concern that a texting ban could be too difficult to enforce or give law enforcement too much leeway to stop drivers without probable cause.
“You’re giving the officers carte blanche to basically stop you if you look down,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. “… I see that as a very serious problem as to this law being applied.”
Sanchez added that existing careless-driving rules should be sufficient to combat bad driving habits caused by texting.
To address privacy concerns, the Senate Judiciary Committee before the Friday floor vote amended the bill to prohibit law enforcement officers from seizing a driver’s mobile device to confirm it was being illegally used while driving.
Sanchez was the only Democrat to vote against the proposed texting ban. Joining him in opposition were Sens. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales; Bill Sharer, R-Farmington; Pat Woods, R-Broadview; and Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell.
Ingle, the Senate minority leader, said enacting texting-while-driving bans should be left to municipalities.
A similar bill last year advanced to the Senate floor but never was brought to the floor for debate.
Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, said some of the opposition was misdirected.
“Everybody’s hung up on the enforcement,” Ryan said. “… To me, the biggest question here is if we want to stop texting while driving, we’ve got to first make it illegal.”
Gov. Susana Martinez has voiced support for a statewide ban on texting while driving. Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell on Friday praised the Senate vote.
“Distracted drivers pose a serious danger to fellow motorists on New Mexico’s streets, roads and highways, especially among our youth,” Knell said. “Most states have banned the practice of texting while driving, and the governor believes we should too.”