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New bill would ban handheld phone calls in the car

OKLAHOMA CITY - A newly-introduced bill at the state capitol would punish drivers who make handheld phone calls on the road.

Sen. Ron Sharp (R-Shawnee) introduced the bill, which builds on last year's law, banning texting and driving behind the wheel.

That bill also forbids writing, reading or checking emails as well as updating social media sites while the car is in motion.

"You see it everyday," Sharp told NewsChannel 4. "You still see men and women texting, and you look in their back seat and there's their kids. You still run into the problem that people think they can multitask, but of course they can't."

In Senate Bill 44, Sharp would make it illegal to use a handheld device for any action, including phone calls.

Bluetooth and hands free devices would still be permitted, as would built-in navigation devices.

There are exemptions in the bill for emergencies.

"You cannot put this next to your ear and drive down the road," Sharp said, holding his cell phone. "When they're on the phone, they take their hand completely off the steering wheel they get so excited, so involved in the conversation. We can't have that. That's dangerous when you're driving 70 down the highway."

Catching offenders, who could be punished with a $100 fine, figures to be easier, Sharp said, thanks to a provision in the bill that aids law enforcement.

Under current law, a driver has to admit to texting to be in violation.

The new bill would make it so an officer only has to see a violation to write a ticket.

"Fifty percent of youth say that police involvement and possibly getting pulled over and ticketed is a definite deterrent to texting and driving," said Linda Terrell, executive director of Oklahoma Challenge, which works with students to combat distracted driving. "Kids can see that not only is it dangerous, but it's also maybe going to cost them and their pocketbook, and mom and dad aren't going to be too happy and maybe the car is going to go away."

Terrell has been pushing for Oklahoma to ban car phone calls, even before Sharp's bill, which she supports.

"We need to just put the phones down," she said. "It keeps your brain from being able to focus on driving, which is what you need to be doing. There are some definite pluses with the texting and driving law, though I'm not sure it's enough."

AAA Oklahoma is also pleased with the results of the 2015 texting and driving law.

Its numbers show reductions in total crashes (-12.5 percent), injury crashes (-21.6 percent) and fatal crashes (-30 percent).

"It's working, and that's great news," said spokesman Chuck Mai. "The message has gotten through to motorists in Oklahoma: That texting while driving, emailing while driving is so dangerous, there's a law against it and, guess what, they're voluntarily putting the phone down. Crashes are being prevented, lives are being saved."

Mai also supports Sharp's new bill and is urging the legislature to take things a step further.

Hands free driving is not necessarily risk free, he said.

"The danger is not really so much holding the phone as it is holding the conversation," he said. "You're allowing your attention to be taken away from the act of driving."

But, neither Mai nor Sharp are necessarily getting their hopes up, as they urge Oklahomans to call their local representatives.

Both expect push-back from citizens who want the government out of their business.

"It's going to be resistance basically from individuals who believe that government is going too far by telling me what I can and cannot do," Sharp said.

Added Mai: "Funny thing about Oklahomans - we don't like being told what to do. And, we especially don't want the government telling us what to do."