Stricter ban on cell phone use while driving advances at the legislature

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Drivers head westbound on I-70, seen from the Elyria Swansea park built above the highway. June 30, 2023.

Colorado drivers better get ready to put away their cell phones while behind the wheel.

The state legislature is moving forward with a bill that would ban the use of handheld electronic devices while operating a vehicle. Phone calls would still be allowed, but only via hands-free technology like Bluetooth. Anything else, like checking texts in traffic or scrolling social media at stoplights, could get you a ticket.

At the first hearing for Senate Bill 65 on Monday, a procession of witnesses shared stories of the accidents they’d endured, and the loved ones they’d lost, because of careless drivers.

Shelley Fortney’s 9-year-old daughter Erica was biking home from school in Fort Collins on the day before Thanksgiving break when she was hit by a neighbor, just blocks from her house. The driver had just answered a call on her phone.

“That phone call, along with her shuffling through paperwork in her passenger seat, caused her to not have any hands on the wheel. Therefore, she had zero control over what happened to her car and the direction it was going when it drifted over and she hit my child,” Fortney told the Senate Transportation Committee. “I've shared our story thousands of times — thousands — for one reason alone. No parent should have to suffer the loss of a child or best friend or husband due to something a hundred percent preventable like this.”

About 92 percent of Colorado drivers admitted driving while distracted on a 2020 CDOT survey. The department found that in 2019, distracted driving was a factor in more than 15,000 crashes, including 28 deaths.

“Senate Bill 65 is one of those things that is very personal to me, personal because I have been hit twice as a bike commuter,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, one of the bill’s main sponsors. “I feel this every day as a bike commuter. I feel this every day as a dad, with my kids on their bikes, trying to navigate around Denver.”

Similar bills have failed in past years, but Hansen said advocates have worked to address concerns and win over support. No witnesses testified against the proposal Monday.

It is already illegal to text message while driving in Colorado, but this law expands that prohibition to include taking calls or doing nearly anything else on a cell phone while a vehicle is not parked. The punishment starts at $75 and two points on a drivers’ license for a first time violation, both of which increase for repeat offenders.

Similar bans exist in 27 states and the District of Columbia.

Former state lawmaker Lois Court, who tried unsuccessfully to pass this policy during her time at the legislature, returned Monday to urge her former colleagues to act. 

“This is not acceptable. What kind of civilization are we? What kind of state are we?” Court asked the panel. “Do we value life in this state? Do we value the lives of motorcyclists, of bicyclists, of pedestrians, of other drivers? Do we? Do you? If you do, you have no excuse to not vote for this bill.”

The committee voted unanimously to move the bill forward.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sen. Chris Hansen's name. It has been corrected.