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Putting the brakes on Colorado’s ban of hand-held cellphone use while driving ‘was not an option anymore’

New Colorado law hopes to deter distracted driving through citations that will only be given if another traffic violation was observed by law enforcement
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Posted at 2:36 PM, Jun 12, 2024

DENVER — Can you recall the number of times you’ve had a close call with a distracted driver over the past week? The past three days? How about yesterday?

Distracted driving is a big problem; anybody who walks, bikes or drives a car in Colorado can tell you that. But how big of a problem is it, and will Colorado’s new law banning the use of hand-held cellphones while behind the wheel make a dent on a problem state lawmakers and other stakeholders have been trying to fix for a decade?

“As a biker, I used to commute every day and I got hit twice by people on their phones,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat and one of the co-sponsors of Senate Bill 65, as he recalled two close calls he had with distracted drivers while living in Boston years ago.

Those two incidents, coupled with the fact that he now has two boys who bike to and from school every day, are just some of the reasons Hansen has been working on fixing Colorado’s distracted driving problem for the last five years.

“So it’s a personal issue, but it's also one where I think there's a huge amount of data and evidence to show that we need to improve public safety on our roads,” he said.

Those numbers don’t lie.

Distracted driving across the state accounted for over 10,000 crashes, more than 1,400 injuries and 68 deaths in 2020, according to a Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) study. A year later, deaths from distracted driving in Colorado rose to 72 – a number CDOT officials said is likely an undercount, as many people would probably not admit to distracted driving after being involved in a crash.

Distracted driving is also now the third cause of traffic-related crashes in Colorado, according to CDOT, with 718 Coloradans losing their lives to distracted driving from 2012-2022. Nationwide, distracted driving has led to an additional 420,000 crashes and 1,000 deaths since 2020, an analysis from Cambridge Mobile Telematics (CMT) shows.

In a survey conducted by CDOT last year, 76% of Colorado drivers reported using their phones (hands-free or handheld) while driving – up from 67% in 2022. What’s worse? Nearly half of those surveyed (45%) said they had used a cellphone while driving a week before taking the survey.

In all, 91% of Coloradans admitted to driving distracted in any given week, according to the survey. Phones were cited as the top distraction.

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When it comes to the most vulnerable roadway users, those numbers don’t get any better.

In 2023, 20 bicyclists and 133 pedestrians were killed on state roads, “the deadliest year for bicyclists and pedestrians” in the state, according to Pete Piccolo, an avid bicyclist and the executive director of Bicycle Colorado, a nonprofit that has been lobbying to get a law in the books banning hand-held cellphone use since at least 2018.

What’s different from the 2018 attempt to pass a hand-held ban while driving compared to now, Piccolo said, was that “the number of pedestrians and bicyclists getting killed on Colorado's roads has continued to increase.”

Here's not wrong. Over a 21-year period, from 2002 to 2023, deaths on Colorado roads among bicyclists and pedestrians have increased 122% and 87%, respectively, CDOT data shows.

Within that time frame, 13,001 people have died on Colorado’s roads since 2002 from traffic-related crashes, including 716 just in 2023 alone.

It's here where you might be wondering: What has law enforcement been doing about it?

Denver7 reached out to the Denver Police Department (DPD) in the hope they could answer that very question. While the department unfortunately declined our request for an interview where we intended to ask them about how much police work went into deterring careless driving, they did, however, point us to Denver District Court, where we obtained careless driving citation records dating back to 2019 to see if there were any alarming trends when it comes to careless drivers on Denver roads.

Denver court records show that in the year prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic, 7,392 people in Denver were stopped by police after committing a traffic violation and were subsequently cited for careless driving, in addition to other charges related to that traffic stop (running a red light, leaving the scene of an accident, driving under the influence, not having a license, etc.).

By the end of 2020, careless driving citations fell by more than a third, with only 4,785 people being cited for careless driving in addition to other charges.

Though DPD could not explain what led to the substantial decrease in the number of careless driving citations issued by its officers, it’s safe to assume the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people’s movement, combined with the rise in remote work for hundreds of thousands of white-collar workers, played a role in the decline of such citations.

But since then, the number of careless driving citations issued by Denver police has remained flat, hovering somewhere between 4,600 to 4,800 per year.

When asked about this trend, a spokesperson for the department would only say in an email to Denver7 that citations numbers “can vary for a variety of reasons.”

Though the number of careless driving citations has remained relatively stable over the past several years, “I think what you're gonna see is an increase, because we have made it more enforceable,” said State Rep. David Ortiz, another co-sponsor of Senate Bill 65.

Cellphone use while driving is already illegal for anyone under the age of 18 in the state of Colorado. Starting Jan. 1, 2025, driving with a phone in hand will be illegal for all.

“We just want everyone to know: We’re a hands-free state. You don't need a cell phone to operate a vehicle. We didn't need it for 70 years in this country's history. You don't need an app,” Ortiz said. “We want to really hit that point home and hit the point that, if you are driving with your cell phone in your hand and driving recklessly – carelessly – you will be pulled over.”

A previous version of the bill would have made hand-held cellphone use while driving a primary offense (like failure to wear a seat belt in other states), but Ortiz and several other lawmakers were concerned that it would lead to over-policing of Black and brown communities, a group of people who also happen to be impacted at higher rates than whites when it comes to traffic-related deaths.

“We’re trying to thread that needle here between public safety and over-policing,” he said. “My brother has been harassed by the cops. I've been harassed by the cops. My family has been harassed by cops.”

Ortiz, who also has a personal connection to this issue after one of his cousins was killed by a distracted driver in the early 2000s, said that what made this bill different than the one introduced in 2018 was the “wellspring of support” not just from families who’ve been torn apart by distracted drivers, but from community members in the disability community, Colorado’s cycling lobby, as well as the Colorado State Patrol and CDOT.

“Because of that support, it became harder and harder for certain traditional opponents of this bill – because this bill has been trying to move forward for a decade – to keep saying ‘no.’ To just keep saying ‘no’ was not an option anymore,” Ortiz said.

He added that it was victim testimony along with the overwhelming amount data showing just how badly this bill was needed in the state that finally convinced lawmakers idle on the legislation to finally give it the green light.

One such piece of data came from the CSP, which showed a 40-year high in the number of traffic fatalities over the past several years, according to CSP legislative liaison Mike Honn.

“This certainly is not acceptable because those are families, those are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, you name it,” he said. “There's a there's a story behind every name that you read in a headline. There's always a name and a story and a life behind that.”

With the passing of Senate Bill 65, Colorado will join other 27 other states that have similar laws already in the books, including California, which saw a 31% reduction in traffic-related deaths two years after a ban on cellphone use while driving was implemented; and Washington, D.C., which nearly reduced traffic deaths by half two years after passing a law banning cellphone use behind the wheel 20 years ago.

Starting Jan. 1, 2025, Coloradans who’ve been caught driving carelessly will be slapped with a $75 citation and 2 license suspension points for the first offense, with penalties rising to $250 and 4 license points by the third offense. Drivers can get that first citation dismissed by a court if they can prove they have a Bluetooth device or have proof of the purchase of a hands-free accessory.

“I think over time, when people start having to live by the consequences of their actions, you will see a sharp decline (in the number of traffic-related deaths)," Ortiz said. "That's what we've seen in other states, so I really hope that's what we see here.”