School zone phone ban questioned, advanced

A state Senate panel advanced legislation Thursday that would ban hand-held cellphone use in school zones, but members said it still needed work.

“There’s a lot of amendments and language to work out between here and the (Senate) floor,” state Sen. Sherri Buffington, R-Keithville, told bill sponsor state Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City.

Some questioned the need for the legislation.

“I really don’t see a problem,” state Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, said.

“Where’s the risk here?” asked Daniel Hayes, of Metairie, a member of the public who testified against the bill. Hayes said the legislation “unfairly targets the poor” who cannot afford Bluetooth devices or speaker phones in their cars.

Thompson said Bossier Parish law enforcement asked him to file the legislation to address a problem they termed a risk to the safety of schoolchildren.

He said distracted drivers and distracted children in school zones is a recipe for trouble.

House Bill 370 would prohibit drivers from engaging in a call, writing or sending a text message or reading or posting messages on a social networking site in school zones. First-time violators would get a fine of up to $175. Subsequent offenses could bring a fine of up to $500.

The House-passed bill would have banned all cellphone use. But the committee amended the bill to permit hands-free wireless telephones and an electronic communications device used hands-free.

Senators worried about the impact on drivers.

“How do we let the driver know they cannot do this?” asked state Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville.

“I am concerned about unintended consequences,” said state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans. “How do we enforce something without signage?”

Thompson’s bill does not provide for signage to be installed in school zones warning of the ban.

“There are signs that can be prepared — ‘no cellphone use in the area,’ ” Thompson said. He said he envisioned a public awareness campaign once the legislation becomes law.

“If you are going to do that, the enforcement should be put off until a campaign can be done,” Brown said.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said he figured Thompson did not include the signage requirement because of the cost involved.

Thompson’s bill deals with a cellphone use ban in very limited areas around schools and the public should be alerted, Adley said.

Adley offered and the committee approved an amendment under which enforcement could not begin until Jan. 1 to give time to address public notice concerns.

The Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee then shipped the altered legislation to the Senate floor.