- Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - After years of trying, the New Mexico Senate approved Friday a proposal to prohibit texting and checking social media on smartphones while driving in the state.

Senators voted 37-5 on a bill that prohibits drivers - even while at a stop light - from sending or reading a text message and email. It also bans making an Internet search, changing songs on streaming-music apps and making calls from cellphones or other handheld wireless devices while behind the wheel. Users can still make calls with a Bluetooth or headphone set, but they must pull over to dial a number, under the bill.

The proposal calls for a $25 fine for a first violation and $50 for subsequent violations. But it prohibits law enforcement officers from demanding to look at motorists’ smartphones during traffic stops.

Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat who sponsored the measure, said the problem of distracted drivers has grown and posed a safety hazard on state roads and highways. “You should not be looking down at your phone for any reason other than to summon emergency services,” Wirth said.

But some senators expressed concern that the bill would give law enforcement too much power in pulling over motorists for simply looking down.

“I have a growing concern that in the name of public safety we may erode certain protections,” Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.

State Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who voted against the ban, said he was concerned that the bill would give police a “cart blanche” to pull over motorists for something as mundane as glancing down at an ashtray. “I see that as a very serious problem,” he said.

Others felt the proposal took away from resources from police and was hard to prove in court.

Law enforcement agencies, including the State Police, testified in support of the legislation, along with officials in Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

The National Transportation Safety Board has called for states to ban the use of cellphones by drivers, including for texting. The risk of a traffic crash is 23 times greater when texting while driving, according to the federal agency.

New Mexico already prohibits texting and cellphone use by teenage drivers with a learner’s permit or provisional license, but there’s no statewide restriction for adult drivers.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 41 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban texting by all drivers.

The proposal now goes to the House.


Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at https://twitter.com/russcontreras

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