Lawmakers say time is right to outlaw drivers' cell phone use

CARSON CITY -- The days of motorists being able to talk or text with hand-held cell phones while driving in Nevada might come to an end this year.

The likelihood of such legislation being approved at the 2011 session improved significantly when a key assemblyman who blocked a similar proposal two years ago offered his support Wednesday.

Gov. Brian Sandoval will have the last word on the proposal, which supporters say would prevent many deaths caused by drivers distracted by the new technology.

But on Wednesday, a Sandoval spokeswoman said the governor won't decide whether to sign or veto such legislation until he sees it.

Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, the man who changed his mind, introduced a bill Wednesday that would prohibit drivers from texting. He also believes a bill to prohibit drivers' use of hand-held cell phones should win approval.

As chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee in 2009, Atkinson refused even to conduct a vote on a Senate-passed bill to outlaw texting by drivers. Now it appears both houses will support such legislation.

"A lot of things have changed since then," Atkinson said after he introduced Assembly Bill 151 that would outlaw texting. "The secretary of Transportation has indicated he may take states' transportation funding (if states allow texting). Secondly, we have heard a lot more from our constituents. Many of them have been involved in accidents (with drivers who texted). You can look at the car next to you and see someone texting."

Atkinson noted that most of the top Assembly leaders serve as co-sponsors of his bill.

Sandoval's press secretary, Mary-Sarah Kinner, said the governor won't say whether he'll support particular bills until after they pass because they could be amended from the original versions.

Also Wednesday, Assemblyman Harvey Munford, D-Las Vegas, introduced Assembly Bill 173 that would outlaw the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers.

Last week, Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, also introduced a bill that would ban hand-held cell phone use and texting by drivers. She predicted at that time that there is little opposition to such legislation.

Public hearings -- during which Nevadans can comment on the bills -- have not yet been scheduled.

If approved, the bills from Atkinson and Breeden would go into effect Oct. 1, unless their effective date is changed. Munford's cell phone-use ban, however, would go into effect as soon as it is signed by the governor.

Thirty states prohibit texting by all drivers, while another eight outlaw it for juvenile drivers. No state completely bans drivers from using cell phones. Eight states, including California, allow only hands-free cell phone use.

John Johansen, manager of impaired driving programs for the state Office of Traffic Safety, said earlier this year that distracted or impaired driving is a factor in 20 percent of auto accidents in Nevada.

Statistics on how many Nevada accidents are due to texting cannot be easily found, since the drivers tend to lie if they were texting, and investigators often cannot easily find the definite cause of a fatality, he said.

But his office found 63 people in Nevada died in accidents in the past five years when they were driving while distracted.

Atkinson expects a cell phone ban to pass because of the difficulty of police in trying to enforce an anti-texting law.

"I think we will hear from law enforcement that they would have a problem figuring out what a driver was doing."

He said police might think a driver was texting when the driver would say he just was using a cell phone, according to Atkinson.

Nevada already has a law against distracted driving, which could include everything from texting to eating in a car. But police testified two years ago in favor of legislation that specifically targeted texting and cell phone use by drivers.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901.