The Senate Public Affairs Committee unanimously endorsed the proposal. But similar measures have failed in the Legislature since 2009, when then-Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson recommended banning drivers from using cellphones for texting or talking while they're on the road.
The latest legislation would prohibit drivers—even while at a stop light—from sending or reading a text message and email. It also bans making an Internet search from a cellphone or other hand-held communications device while behind the wheel. There would be a $25 fine for a first violation and $50 for subsequent violations.
Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat who's sponsoring the measure, said the problem of distracted drivers has grown, and it's time for lawmakers to finally respond.
"All of us have experienced the proliferation of texting and driving. I've had some very close calls," Wirth told the committee.
Law enforcement agencies, including the State Police, testified in support of the legislation along with officials in Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's administration.
The National Transportation Safety Board has called for states to ban the use of cellphones by drivers, including for texting. The risk of a traffic crash is 23 times greater when texting while driving, according to the federal agency.
New Mexico already prohibits texting and cellphone use by teenage drivers with a learner's permit or provisional license, but there's no statewide restriction for adult drivers.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 41 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban texting by all drivers.
Opponents in the past have said the proposed legislation isn't needed because current laws against careless or reckless driving can deal with the problem of drivers who are texting.
But Wirth said, "You don't have to rise of level of careless driving to get this fine."
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, objects to the measure and blocked it last year. He said in an interview that he worries the proposed ban could lead to an invasion of privacy if police seize a person's cellphone to search for evidence that a driver was texting, and he's concerned the penalties could become more severe in the future.
"It's a traffic violation now. But what I have seen happen to certain traffic violations is they end up becoming misdemeanors and then they eventually end up becoming felonies," Sanchez said.
Wirth's proposal would allow a driver to pull over to the side of the road to send or receive a text message, and the measure would permit the use of voice-operated or hands-free devices for sending a text message.
The measure goes next to the Judiciary Committee for consideration and if approved would head to the 42-member Senate for a possible vote. It also must pass the House before it could reach the governor to be signed into law.
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