What do I need to know about the new Distracted Driver law?

R. J. Butler

On March 18, 2020, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed into law legislation that dramatically strengthens Indiana’s Distracted Driver law. That legislation can be viewed here. The new law goes into effect on Wednesday, July 1, 2020.

The relevant text of the new law is as follows:

“[A] person may not hold or use a telecommunications device while operating a moving motor vehicle.”

The law makes exceptions for calling 911 to report an actual emergency, OR (and this is important) when the telecommunications device is used in conjunction with hands-free or voice-operated technology.

Five quick takeaways:

  1. The new law covers any use of your phone or smart device—not just sending texts and emails.
  2. If you are in the driver’s seat and are on a public road, do NOT have your phone or device out at all, unless it is in a hands-free phone cradle.

If not in a hands-free phone cradle, your phone or device should not be visible. Keep it in your pockets, a bag or briefcase, or an enclosed console area, including the glove box. If your phone or device is resting in an open console, even if you’re not using it, it may give a law enforcement officer the opening to assert that you were using your phone or device illegally, but dropped it into the open console when he/she approached. Wait until you are parked to have the phone or device out.

  1. What does “operating a moving motor vehicle” mean?

Does the law apply when I am stopped at a traffic light or stop sign or at a full-stop in congested traffic? While the law hasn’t gone into effect as of this writing, and there is no case law to draw from, we think that the answer is likely, “Yes.”, and here’s why:

The statutes help define some of these terms. “Operate” means “to navigate or otherwise be in actual physical control of a vehicle.” (IC 9-13-2-117.5) “Motor vehicle” includes any vehicle that is self-propelled, but not including farm tractors, or electric bicycles, scooters, and electric mobility devices. (IC 9-13-2-105)

Moving isn’t explicitly defined by the statute, though “moving traffic offense” distinguishes vehicles that are “in motion.” “In motion” isn’t expressly specified in the law either, but the American Heritage Dictionary lists amongst its definitions of “motion” as “in active operation.” This is the definition that an Indiana Court is likely to apply.

Our Courts in Indiana have regularly interpreted the idea of “operating a motor vehicle” broadly, and without limitation to whether or not the vehicle in question was physically in motion. (See Gutenstein v. State, 59 NE 3d 984 Ind. Ct. App. 2016) The Distracted Driver law is designed to reduce collisions and injuries from drivers being distracted away from the operation of their vehicles by their phones and smart devices. For this reason, an Indiana court is likely to apply the logic that drivers are no less in operation of their vehicles while paused at a traffic signal or in heavy traffic.

  1. If you are detained by a law enforcement officer in a traffic stop, do NOT consent to hand them your phone or device.

What hasn’t changed in the law is that a law enforcement officer may not confiscate your phone to determine whether or not you are complying with the Distracted Driver law, UNLESS YOU CONSENT TO IT. If an officer asks to see your phone or firmly asks you to hand him/her your phone, your polite response should always be, “I do not consent to a search of my phone.”

  1. Learn to use the Bluetooth and hands-free features of your vehicle.

Most vehicles come equipped with these features as standard, and many late-model vehicles integrate your smart device via Apple Carplay and Android Auto. Whatever features your vehicle has for hands-free use of your phone, now is an excellent time to learn to use them so that you may operate your vehicle more safely and within the law.

Please remember that the law is always changing and that this briefing is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice and is not intended to form an attorney-client relationship. If you have any questions or need to consult with an attorney concerning traffic or other matters, please contact Myers, Hockemeyer & McNagny, LLP to schedule an appointment.

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