Colorado lawmakers finally pass bill criminalizing cell phone use while driving

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
An SUV drives down Washington Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Sept. 28, 2021.

Using a cell phone while driving would become a crime for adult drivers in Colorado under a bill that cleared the state legislature last week.

Texting while driving and making phone calls for drivers under 18 are already both illegal under current state law. But efforts to expand distracted driving laws have failed for years despite roads becoming deadlier — especially for vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists.

This session, however, legislators say their bill succeeded because it balances concerns for road safety with worries that it could lead to over-policing of drivers of color.

Bill sponsor Rep. David Ortiz, D-Littleton, said he’s seen both sides of the issue in his personal life.

“I have been harassed. My family has been harassed by cops,” he said in an interview. “But also I have a cousin that was murdered by a distracted driver back in 2003. So I … [wanted] to thread that needle. And I think we got to a really good place.”

Under the bill, which would go into effect in January 2025, drivers will be able to legally make calls only if they use a hands-free accessory. Other exceptions include drivers reporting emergencies, first responders, or who are parked. Fines will start at $75. A first-time offender can get their fee waived if they buy a hands-free device.

The original bill cleared the Senate months ago relatively intact. But some House lawmakers worried that the bill would’ve allowed police to pull over drivers simply for having a cell phone on their body — even if it wasn’t being used. 

New language added in the House and approved last week by a conference committee, made up of members of both chambers, says that a police officer must actually see the driver using a cell phone. 

The committee also made cell phone usage a secondary offense, Ortiz said, a change supported by representatives for police, civil liberties groups and defense attorneys. That means drivers must first be pulled over for something else before they can be cited for using a cell phone. 

“I'm really glad that we all came to agreement,” Ortiz said. “We've been trying to do this bill for almost a decade and we finally got it done.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis called the bill a “big step forward” to improve road safety and said he would sign the bill. 

“Governor Polis appreciates the work of the bill sponsors and stakeholders for this effort to make Colorado safer by having Colorado join 27 other states and D.C. in banning handheld cell phone use while driving,” spokesperson Shelby Wieman wrote in an email.