Michigan's new cell phone law goes after distracted drivers: How residents feel about it

People across Michigan echoed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's sentiment that newly signed laws banning cell phone use behind the wheel will make Michigan's roads safer for drivers and pedestrians alike, but still question how strictly the state's new "hands-free" status will be enforced.

On Wednesday, Whitmer signed a trio of bills establishing new standards for cell phone use while driving — only hands-free programs can be used, except in cases of emergency or to report a crime taking place. This means, starting June 30, drivers can be fined if they are stopped for holding their phones up during a call, scrolling their social media feeds or any other phone use. The new law makes Michigan the 26th so-called hands-free state.

Lawmakers and advocates for the bills say the new law will save lives — in 2021, there were 21 fatal vehicle crashes in Michigan where cell phone use was a factor, according to the state Office of Highway Safety Planning.

Drivers commended the new changes, but some still have questions over its true effects on Michigan's roadways. Here's what some had to say about the new law.

Distracted driving isn't hard to notice, one Detroiter says

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Roslyne Solomon, of Detroit. She said the changes barring distracted driving will make the roads safer.  “Because you’d be paying a lot more attention to the road than you would your phone,” she said.

Solomon, 63, doesn’t drive a car. But as a pedestrian walking around the city, she said she frequently notices drivers not paying attention.

Roslyne Solomon, 63, of Detroit, said distracted driving affects her as a pedestrian.

“Ain’t no need to throw them in jail for it,” she said. But she said penalties should teach drivers a lesson to discourage phone use in the car.

Under the new law, those caught improperly using their phones while driving would be subject to a $100 civil fine for first-time offenders and/or 16 hours of community service, followed by $250 fines for each subsequent violation, and/or 24 hours of community service. Fines would be doubled if the penalty occurs during a car crash. Fines are also greater for school bus and commercial vehicle drivers.

Concern over how the new law is enforced

Lansing resident Emma Gaalaas Mullaney said she supports laws to address the problem of distracted driving but she is concerned about the way the new law might be enforced.

“In general, there are ways in which laws and mandates and regulation have made driving exponentially safer,” she said, citing seat belt laws as a prime example.

She said she would have to read the law to comment on it in detail, but she is concerned whether it will have the primary effect of improving safety or “just adds further penalties and risk to folks who drive the same way everybody else drives but are much more heavily surveilled and criminalized when they do so.”

Emma Gaalaas Mullaney

Mullaney, a postdoctoral research fellow at Michigan State University, said she is so concerned about distracted driving that it affects what roads she will drive on at certain times of day and she applauds the governor for trying to address it.

However, “there are more police in poor communities and communities of color and where I live in the west of Lansing, there are a lot more police cars than there are … in East Lansing, but there aren’t more distracted drivers.”

Lawmakers included a bill to direct the Michigan State Police to compile a report on the number of citations issued under the new law in the first three-and-a-half years of its existence, as well as the race and ethnicity of the individuals cited and the number of crashes, serious injuries and deaths caused by distracted driving.

Texting and driving 'drives me nuts,' in west Michigan

Roger Rodriguez, 71, applauded the new changes, saying he often spots drivers on their phones while navigating downtown Grand Rapids.

He does wonder, however, how stringently the new distracted driving ban would be enforced, noting he already sees plenty of texting behind the wheel whenever he’s on the road. Texting and driving has been prohibited in Michigan since 2010.

Roger Rodriguez, 71, sits for a portrait near Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., on Tuesday, May 30, 2023.

“It drives me nuts, I’m just baffled,” he said. “There’s a law, you can’t text, and you see everyone doing it anyways. It’s unbelievable how many people get away with it.”

Rodriguez said he doesn’t ever look at his phone while driving, and will often pull over if he needs to make a call or respond to a text.

Being a safe driver has more to do with just phones

Detroiter Issac Jones noted that in Michigan, it’s already prohibited to text while driving. But he said he opposes continuing to also ban texting at a stop sign or stoplight. “So you stop at a stoplight and you’re texting, you put it down and you drive off. I don’t understand that,” he said.

It’s not just phones that can distract drivers on the roads, Jones said. “It’s a lot of other things that’s going on,” he said such as conversations in the car or a baby in the backseat.

Jones, 73, said he frequently uses his hands-free system in his car. But he said the technology isn’t what makes someone a safer driver. “You have to put it in here that you a safe driver,” he said, pointing to his head. “All the laws in the world is not going to change whether or not you be a safe driver. Like people most of the time don’t even think about the law... they get a call, they answer it.”

Issac Jones, 73, of Detroit, says distracted driving goes beyond phone use in the car.

Hands-free devices 'work very well'

Lansing resident Cliff Brannon, a retired GM worker, said he and his wife recently witnessed a motor vehicle collision involving someone who was talking on the phone and he supports the new law.

“I feel like there is too high of a percentage of our accidents occurring because of distracted driving,” Brannon said.

“Also, with the combination of hands-free devices that are out there, even if you’ve got a car that’s 30 years old, you can buy a hands-free device,” he said. “These things aren’t that expensive, and they work very well.”

Brannon, who is Black, said uneven enforcement of any law can be an issue and will continue to be as long as biases based on race continue to exist.

However, “there are more people speaking up about it now,” he said. “If people continue to speak up about it, I think that is probably going to even itself out.”

Cliff Brannon

New laws could prompt new habits behind the wheel

Shawn Davis, 30, said distracted driving is a problem. “You might look down at your phone and look up and you running in the back of somebody,” he said.

Car accidents could be prevented if drivers weren’t distracted by their phones, and the new law will help make the roads safer, the Detroit resident said.

He said he often looks at his phone while driving and sees others paying more attention to their phone than the road. For his part, he said he expects his phone habits in the car will change with the new law.

Shawn Davis, 30, of Detroit, says car accidents could be prevented if drivers weren't distracted by their phones.

One parent worries about young drivers' phone use

Samer Bargh, of Okemos, often uses navigation apps on her phone to get around Michigan, especially on long-distance drives. She likes connecting to her CarPlay setup, but mentioned her kids use the technology less often.

“They just go on their mobile and keep looking, we fight all the time,” she said with a laugh.

She noted everyone, regardless of if they’re behind the wheel, seems to be connected to their phones.

“It's like the time of technology," she said. "Just look at the street, everyone, even 5-year-olds, carry their mobile.”

Contact Arpan Lobo: alobo@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @arpanlobo.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: New cell phone law in Michigan for distracted driving: Public reaction