Rhode Island: Cell phone laws, legislation

Last updated: August 14, 2014
Cell phone, texting updates: : The Senate has approved a plan to hike fines for texting & driving, as well as for violations of the cell phone law for minor drivers. First convictions would be $100 under the plan from Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, which advanced to the House in mid-May.

Rhode Island state flagWeed said part of the idea was to back law enforcement: “It is very hard for the police to enforce these laws.” At least four distracted driving bills are under consideration for 2014. Another is advancing in the Senate.

State Sen. Susan Sosnowski is back with legislation that would prohibit use of handheld communications devices by drivers. The fine would be $100. Her plan was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 15.

In 2013, the governor signed off on several new laws designed to crack down on distracted drivers. They included possible license suspensions.

Current prohibitions:

  • Text messaging outlawed for all drivers on Rhode Island roads.
  • Drivers under the age of 18 prohibited from using cell phones.
  • School bus operators prohibited from using cell phones while driving.

Fines: $85 (first offense), then $100 and then $125.

Read Rhode Island’s texting & driving statute.

Distracted driving legislation (2014)
Senate Bill 2092: Would bar drivers from using handheld wireless communications devices. Fine: $100. Fine can be waived with proof of hands-free device. Also prohibits “any activity” that interferes with safe operation of vehicle. Approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 15. (Sosnowski)

S 2678: Seeks to increase fines for distracted driving to $100/$150/$250. Includes use of cell phones by minor drivers and texting by all drivers. Current fines $85/$100/$125. Approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 29. Approved by the Senate on May 14. To the House. (Weed)

House Bill 7152: Would prohibit student use of cell phones on school buses. Fine: $50. School bus drivers currently barred from using cell phones. Exception for emergency use. “Held for further study.” (Corvese)

H 7761: Seeks increased fines for distracted driving. Identical to S 2678. (Ruggiero)

Note: The Rhode Island General Assembly’s web site does not accommodate direct access to the status of current bills. Access status of legislation using this search form.

2013 distracted driving legislation
S 546 SUB-A: Seeks to add license suspensions to current penalties for text messaging while driving. For first offense, license suspension up to 30 days in addition to existing $85 fine. For second conviction, suspension of up to three months. For subsequent convictions, up to six months. Approved by Senate on June 21 and by the House on June 28. Signed by the governor July 15. (Sosnowski/attorney general)

H 5675: Same as S 546, above. Approved by Judiciary on April 2. Approved by House on April 9. Senate passed in concurrence July 2. Signed by the governor July 15. (Serpa/attorney general)

House Bill 5655: Requires the state driver’s education program to cover the dangers of distracted driving, specifically cell phone use, to be followed up with questions on the driver’s license exam. Approved by the House on April 11 and by the Senate on May 28. Signed by the governor June 3. (McNamara)

Senate Bill 660: Same as H 5655, above. Approved by the Senate on April 25 and by the House on May 28. Signed by the governor June 3. (McCaffrey)

S 218: Would hike fines for text messaging while driving to $500 for the first offense, then $1,000 (second offense), then $1,500. Held “for further study” by Senate Judiciary Committee. (Sosnowski)

S 220: Would ban use of handheld mobile phones while driving. Includes general distracted driving provision. Fine: $100, which can be waived if a first-time violator shows proof of a subsequent hands-free device purchase. Held “for further study” by Senate Judiciary Committee. (Sosnowski)

S 417: Would make texting & driving evidence of reckless disregard in crashes resulting in a death. Penalties up to 10 years in prison and license suspension up to five years. Held “for further study” by Senate Judiciary Committee. (O’Neill)

H 5569: Would rewrite current texting law to add mandatory requirement that violators have texting and cell phone blocking device placed in vehicle. People convicted of texting and driving cannot operate any vehicle without blocking device, and if caught do so would lose license for one year (first offense), then two years. Held “for further study” by House Judiciary Committee. (Lima)

H 5101: Would bar drivers from allowing dogs to sit in their laps. Fines: $85 (first offense), then $100, then $125. Held “for further study” by House Judiciary Committee. (Paulumbo)

Distracted driving notes (2013):
The House and Senate pushed through twin plans to add license suspensions to penalties for violating Rhode Island’s electronic distracted driving laws. The bills were signed by the governor July 15.

The new law brings 30-day license suspensions for offenders, who already face $85 fines. The suspensions increase to three months (second offense) and six months (third and subsequent convictions), along with the existing higher fines for repeat offenders. The Traffic Tribunal would have the option of applying either or both penalties.

The bills were brought before the Legislature on behalf of state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, a sponsor of distracted driving legislation during his term in the House. “This act will give the courts the discretion to impose stricter penalties on those who continue to text while driving, risking their own life as well as the lives of others on our roads,” Kilmartin said.

State Sen. Susan Sosnowski, sponsor of S 546, said: “The possible addition of a license suspension is a much more appropriate repercussion for such a dangerous practice.”

The governor already has signed into law twin bills requiring distracted driving education and testing in the driver’s license application process. Final legislative sign-off on the bills came May 28 and the governor gave his OK on June 3.

The other distracted driving bills submitted to the Judiciary Committees in both houses of the General Assembly have been held for further study, meaning they are unlikely to advance during the 2013 session. Many were refilings of measures rejected in 2012.

State Rep. Joseph M. McNamara said of his successful driver’s exam bill: “Our new drivers need to be aware of all the dangers that come with calling, texting or just not paying attention while driving.” His legislation, H 5655, and the Senate companion, S 660, were sent to the governor for final approval May 29.

In addition to the successful license suspension bill, State Sen. Susan Sosnowski refiled her plan for a ban on handheld cell phone use while driving. Rhode Island already outlaws texting & driving. Sosnowski also proposed a steep increase in fines for texting & driving, with first offenses up to $500.

Sosnowski said a handheld cell phone ban would help police enforce the texting ban, since holding wireless communications devices would be outlawed. “I think if municipal police and other groups really got behind this, it would be very easy to get this bill passed into law,” Sosnowski told the Westerly Sun in early April.

Sosnowski says she’s resorted to driving a larger car because of bad driving caused by drivers using their wireless communications devices. “People are all over the road. It’s epidemic, and I think it’s one of the more crucial safety issues,” said Sosnowski, D-District 37.

An unusual bill resubmitted to the House in 2013 would mandate that drivers caught using text messaging install a blocking device that prevents cell phone calls and texting.

2012 distracted driving legislation
HB 7110: Right to privacy legislation that would require search warrants for police who want to view possibly incriminating information on personal electronic devices. Judiciary Committee recommended the bill be held “for further study” on March 13. Approved by the House on April 26. Approved by the Judiciary Committee on June 7. Full Senate concurred with House and OK’d bill June 13. Latest legislative action: Bill transmitted to governor June 18. (Ajello)

Senate Bill 2223: Would ban use of handheld mobile phones while driving. Includes general distracted driving provision. Fine: $100, which can be waived if a first-time violator shows proof of a subsequent hands-free device purchase. (Sosnowski)

SB 2416: Would establish a legal presumption of negligence if a driver is involved in a crash while using a cell phone. Driver using cell phone will be presumed to be the cause of the accident. Applies to civil litigation. (Cote, Sosnowski)

HB 7204: Would rewrite current texting law to add mandatory requirement that violators have texting and cell phone blocking device placed in vehicle. People convicted of texting and driving cannot operate any vehicle without blocking device, and if caught do so would lose license for one year (first offense), then two years. Judiciary Committee recommended the bill be held “for further study” on Feb. 28 (see 2011′s HB 5870, below). (Lima, McNamara)

HB 7926: Would prohibit dogs from sitting in the lap of someone driving a motor vehicle. (Palumbo)

2011 distracted driving legislation
Senate Bill 242: Would outlaw use of handheld cell phones by all drivers in Rhode Island. Fine: maximum of $100. A first offender can have fine suspended by showing proof of purchase of a hands-free device for the cell phone. Judiciary Committee recommended the bill be held “for further study” on May 5. (Sosnowski)

SB 346: Would prohibit drivers under the age of 21 from using handheld cell phones to talk or text message while vehicle is in motion. Fine: up to $100. First offenders’ fines suspended provided they prove they bought a hands-free accessory for the mobile phone. Approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a unanimous vote on June 14. (Lombardo)

HB 5870: Would prohibit the use of “wireless handsets” while driving in Rhode Island. Upon conviction, violators must install a device blocking cell phone calls and text messaging in their vehicle. Fine $85 (first offense) then $100 and then $125. Drivers ordered to block their wireless devices but do not are subject to one-year and then two-year license suspensions. Judiciary Committee recommended the bill be held “for further study” on April 4. (Lima)

2010 legislation
HB 7103: Would prohibit motor vehicle drivers and bicyclists from using cell phones unless a hands-free accessory is employed. Ear phones and headsets cannot cover both ears. Fines of $35 to $140. (Kilmartin)

HB 7117: Would create a general inattentive-driving law that comes into play when driver has committed a moving violation. $50 fine in addition to any other fines. (Kilmartin)

HB 7031: Would prohibit use of handheld mobile phones on Rhode Island roads and highways. Use of cell phones OK if a hands-free attachment is employed. $100 fine for first-time violator who shows proof of purchase of a hands-free attachment. (Giannini)

2009 legislation:
HB 5021 and SB 204 (Substitute A): Bans sending, reading or writing a text messaging while driving a motor vehicle. Approved by the Rhode Island Senate on April 7. (SB 204 was filed as a handheld cell phone ban.) Approved by the House on Oct. 29 and sent to the governor. Signed into law by the governor on Nov. 10, 2009, and effective immediately.

HB 5022 seeks to ban drivers from cell phoning unless a hands-free device is utilized. Also targets text messaging.

HB 5242 would change the existing law against driving or bicycling while wearing earphones or headphones to add a ban against handheld cell phones.

HB 5198 would bar minors from text messaging while driving.

HB 5604: Seeks to ban text messaging while driving on Rhode Island roads.

SB 8: Would outlaw texting while driving. Held in committee. (See SB 204 above)

Legislation notes:
Rep. Peter Kilmartin, D-Pawtucket, and Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, pushed through the General Assembly the ban on text messaging while driving on Rhode Island roads. It brings a $85 fine for the first offense, $100 for the second and $125 for the third. The DOT ran an ad campaign alerting drivers to the Rhode Island texting and driving law.

Kilmartin said after House approval of the texting ban on Oct. 29: “The bill we passed addresses the most egregious form of distracted driving, but I still believe we should pass hands-free cell phone legislation and I will continue that fight next year.”

Debate on the texting ban included criticisms that the bill did not go far enough and ban cell phone use by drivers. “I realize this is a 10-year effort, and if we can get the most egregious offense out of the way at this time I’m happy doing this,” Kilmartin said.

In 2001, the General Assembly passed Kilmartin’s bill banning handheld cell phones. The Rhode Island governor vetoed the legislation, which would have created one of the nation’s earliest cell phoning while driving laws. Kilmartin, a former policeman, was almost hit by a driver using a handheld electronic device a decade ago.

Sen. Sosnowski sponsored the Senate cell phone and text messaging bills. Under the texting legislation, approved by the Senate on April 7, fines scale from $50 to $75 to $100.

After her texting legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee — but not her handheld cell phone ban — Sosnowski said: “I think it’s a good start. … Texting is just so dangerous, and we have to tell people this is not acceptable, especially our young drivers.”

Comments

  1. mary nicholson says:

    I would like to know who to call in Rhode Island when people are texting while driving. I am sick of being cut off, almost run off the road, or being hit by someone who is texting.

    • Chris Mikula says:

      I would also like to know who to call. A young woman on 295 south almost hit me this morning, As she drove by me, she was texting and I believe there was a baby in her backseat. When I yelled at her, she made a very obnoxious hand signal to me and continued to yell back. She got onto Rt 6, as I did, opened her window and repeated her hand gesture. While I was yelling at her she took my picture. I would like to report her as I have her license plate number and make of her car, but do not know who to call. I am very concerned that she just doesn’t realize how dangerous her actions were this morning.

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