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New ND distracted driving law gets tougher, increases fine starting Aug. 1

Forum file photo of a female driving car and using mobile phone, selective focus

BISMARCK—It's always been a crime to blow a stop sign, but now it's double trouble if you also were reaching for a dropped granola bar or trying to put on lipstick.

A new law set to take effect on Aug. 1 adds a $100 penalty if a driver violating a traffic law was also doing something distracting.

There's no set list of what counts as a "distraction," but the law said it's to include any activity "not necessary to the operation of the vehicle" that "reasonably impairs, or would reasonably be expected to impair, the ability of the individual to safely operate a vehicle."

North Dakota Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Michael Roark said he is hopeful the law will make the roads safer.

"Put the phones down, put the distractions away and just allow a little more time to drive," he said. "If it'll help save lives, then it will help us all."

Officers will be on the lookout for what drivers are doing while they commit other traffic offenses, such as swerving into other lanes. Some examples of distractions could be reaching around the car or turning around to talk to see what's in the back seat, he said.

"The verbage itself offers officer discretion," he said.

He said he was not sure yet how often the law will be used, as it is not a provision the agency actively sought. Officers will be trained on the law in the next month.

Bismarck Police Lt. Jeff Solemsaas said distracted driving is a big problem in the city.

"Looking at crash reports, the vast majority are caused by some form of distraction or another," he said. "You rear end a car at a red light, you're probably doing something you weren't supposed to be doing."

He said people are often looking out the window, talking to a passenger, adjusting a radio or using their cell phones.

A 3.5 hour texting-and-driving enforcement in Bismarck on Thursday caught 23 people improperly using their phones while driving, according to data provided by Solemsaas.

The current law said that, for adults, it is a crime to text and drive, but it's OK to check a GPS, dial a phone number or use a handheld phone. For juveniles, it's a crime to talk or text.

Solemsaas, who is in charge of the traffic division, said he's planning to go to a training on the new law at the end of the month, so he can understand better what is expected in terms of enforcing the new law.

The distracted driving law, House Bill 1430, was passed in the last legislative session. The name of the cited offense is "failure to maintain control."

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said he worried that North Dakota lacked a law to discourage distracted driving.

He argues that making it a "secondary offense" keeps out unnecessary or excessive citations. The vagueness of the law is intentional, he added, to allow for the wide range of distractions that cause bad driving and collisions.

"You're going to be able to drive and eat skittles ... but if doing something else causes you to lose control of your vehicle, you need to rethink that behavior," he said.