New NC laws affect seatbelt rules, cell phones and alcohol rules

13 Dec 2006 | Lance Cpl. Patrick M. Fleischman

New North Carolina laws taking effect Dec. 1 will require young drivers to hang up, backseat passengers to buckle up, and prevent judges from turning down more drunk-driving cases as well as bolster current alcohol-related laws.

“These new laws protect our service members off base, but we have some of these policies already in effect on base”, said Richard L. Knight, traffic safety specialist for Camp Lejeune Base Safety Division.

There is already a base order requiring all drivers to use a hands-free devices while driving on base, but under the new North Carolina law, drivers under the age of 18 are barred from talking on a cell phone while driving even with a hands-free device unless they are talking to police or parents, said Sean Magill, a traffic sergeant with the Jacksonville Police Department Traffic Division.

Teenagers who break the law can face a $25 fine and have their probationary driving period extended for six months, added Magill.

"Teenagers already have so much on their minds. This new law tries to make them focus on the task at hand – driving," said Magill. "Cell phones have become a staple in teenager’s hands and they can forget that it’s dangerous to use while driving."

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15-to-20-year-olds, causing roughly one-third of all deaths for this age group, according to the ‘Teen Unsafe Driving Behaviors Focus Group Final Report’ from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Also released on Dec. 1 is house bill 1048, the ‘Motor Vehicle Driver Protection Act’, which seeks to ensure prosecutors and judges handle impaired-driving cases consistently across North Carolina's counties, according to the bill.

According to the NHTSA between 2004 and 2005, alcohol-related fatalities increased 1.7 percent from 16,694 to 16,972.

There are also new penalties for drunken drivers whose accidents cause serious injuries or death and breathalyzer data showing a drivers blood alcohol content at or above the legal limit of 0.08 percent will be considered evidence of impaired driving, according to the new law.

“This new law will better protect the public from the dangers of drunk drivers by strengthening existing DWI statutes and making sure they are applied fairly and consistently throughout the state,” said Gov. Mike Easley. “I commend the task force for its efforts to keep drunk drivers off North Carolina highways and make safe travel a top priority.”

The law limits judges discretion to find a DWI defendant not guilty if the breathalyzer test results show a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or greater according to a press release by Easley’s office.

Easley’s press release continues to explain that it requires prosecutors to document and report reasons for dismissing DWI cases, which the Administrative Office of the Courts can post on its web site. It also expands the definition of impaired driving to include the presence of any amount of illegal drugs in the blood.

Adding new categories the new law stiffens penalties for those with DWI convictions who injure or kill others in accidents.

Under the new law the penalties are categorized as:

• Felony Serious Injury: A person who unintentionally causes serious injury while driving impaired is guilty of a Class F felony.

• Aggravated Felony Serious Injury: A person who intentionally causes serious injury while driving impaired and has an impaired driving conviction within seven years of the offense is guilty of a Class E felony.

• Aggravated Felony Death: A person who unintentionally causes the death of another while driving impaired and has an impaired driving conviction within seven years of the offense is guilty of a Class D felony.

• Repeat Felony Death by Vehicle Offender: A person who has a previous conviction for causing a death while impaired and is convicted a second time for a felony death by vehicle is subject to punishment under the second degree murder statute, which is a Class B2 felony.

"These new penalties are going to hold people more accountable, make the district attorneys more diligent for prosecution and it will help law enforcement be more aware due to the possible felony that person might receive and all of these things will lead to a reduction of drunk-driving cases," said Magill.

Also included in the new laws is a section making it unlawful for people under 21 to drink alcohol. Prior to the ban this only applied to possessing alcohol, and beer keg purchases will now require a permit. Supporters say will discourage adults from obtaining alcohol for minors, according to the press release.

“This will hold the person purchasing a keg for underage drinkers personally responsible criminally or civilly for anything that happens,” said Magill.

Lastly a new seatbelt law, starting Dec. 1, requires all passengers, not just young passengers or those in the front seat, to buckle up, according to North Carolina Senate Bill 774.

More than 43,200 people died on the nation’s highways in 2005, up from 42,636 in 2004, injuries dropped from 2.79 million in 2004 to 2.68 million in 2005, a decline of 4.1 percent and 55 percent of passenger vehicle occupants who died in 2005 were not wearing a seatbelt, according to a preliminary report from the NHTSA.

"Every year this country experiences a national tragedy that is as preventable as it is devastating," said Norman Y. Mineta, secretary of the NHTSA in a press release. "We have the tools to prevent this tragedy – every car has a safety belt, every motorcycle rider should have a helmet and everyone should have enough sense to never drive while impaired".

The inconvenience this new law may cause is far outweighed by the potential for injury or death from an accident, added Magill.

“These new laws are giving us the tools to combat some of the major problems in this state and were glad to know that these problems are being recognized and responded to,” concluded Magill.