Texting while<br />driving a poor mix

Kudos to District 17 Rep. Eldon Nygaard, D-Vermillion, for his introducing a bill – HB 1178 – in the South Dakota House that, if approved, would have made texting while driving a criminal offense.

We wish we could sing the praises of District 17's other House member, Rep. Jamie Boomgarden, a Republican from Chancellor. He voted against the legislation, citing problems with enforcement as a main reason for taking that action. The House of Representatives narrowly defeated HB1178 Wednesday, Feb. 17, with Boomgarden's help, after passing the House Transportation Committee.

HB1178 would make it a misdemeanor offense punishable by a $20 fine to compose, read or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle.

The bill would not apply to voice calls or to dialing numbers on a mobile phone.

Texting while driving would be a primary offense under the bill, meaning law enforcement officers could pull someone over for doing it.

"This bill merely brings the attention of our driving public and our text messaging citizens to the fact that it's dangerous," said Nygaard, the bill's prime sponsor.

In his weekly column, published in this week's Plain Talk, Rep. Boomgarden defends his opposition to the bill by taking a wildly illogical leap.

He states that the bill failed on the House floor "due to the members again having concerns that enforcement would be a big issue as well as having government stepping in again and placing even more restrictions on people's lives. My two issues were related to imagining an officer at 41st and Minnesota Avenue in Sioux Falls observing all the cars at the intersection that have drivers on the phone. How in the world do you handle this or do you turn a blind eye? …

"Secondly, is my concern that people when they receive a text will try to do the right thing either by ignoring it (unlikely) or they may pull to the side of the road and then abruptly pull out in traffic that is traveling at highway speed."

Setting up a scenario that is just plain silly is a poor way to defend opposition to this legislation. If an officer in Sioux Falls observed that the drivers of all the cars he could see were taking swigs out of bottles of Budweiser, we're fairly confident he wouldn't throw up his arms, mutter to himself, "there's no way to enforce this," and simply let every single driver continue an activity that likely has a strong chance of causing public harm.

That second observation – doing the right thing by pulling to the side of the road only to then pull out into traffic – is a head-scratcher, too. In Rep. Boomgarden's opinion, doing the right thing is just as dangerous as doing the "wrong" thing of texting while driving, so it's okay to allow the "wrong" activity to take place in South Dakota.

Never mind that motorists in our state pull over to the side of the road, stop for whatever reason – a flat tire, engine trouble, to quiet a screaming kid – and safely pull back onto the road again. We have heard no accounts that this activity is a major concern among law enforcement in South Dakota that should be outlawed. Unless, perhaps, those drivers are also texting at the time.

Forget scenarios are highly unlikely. Here's what very smart people, using something very accountable called scientific observation, have found.

Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute discovered last summer that when the drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when not texting.

According to a news report published in the New York Times last summer, the researchers also measured the time drivers took their eyes from the road to send or receive texts. In the moments before a crash or near crash, drivers typically spent nearly five seconds looking at their devices — enough time at typical highway speeds to cover more than the length of a football field.

Compared with other sources of driver distraction, "texting is in its own universe of risk," said Rich Hanowski, who oversaw the study at the institute.

That's why we were happy to hear that Rep. Nygaard plans to introduce his legislation again during next year's legislative session.

This week, MobileBurn.com, a Web site that focuses on mobile phones and related hardware, published a story that includes this as its lead statement: In 2008 almost 6,000 people were killed because of a driver losing focus, and that's why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has asked the government to ban texting and driving.

The new law would require law enforcement officers to issue tickets to drivers caught texting behind the wheel with at least a $75 fine and "an unspecified action against their driving privileges," CNN reports.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, California, Connecticut, Washington DC, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, the Virgin Islands, and Washington ban handheld use while driving, and others, like Arkansas, ban the use of cell phones for drivers between the ages of 18 and 20 years old. Meanwhile, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Washington DC, Guam, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Washington already ban texting and driving.

It's time for South Dakota lawmakers to show a little common sense, and put something on the books that will help discourage texting and driving in South Dakota.

Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech institute, one of the world's largest vehicle safety research organizations, said message of his organization's study is was clear.

"You should never do this," he said of texting while driving. "It should be illegal."

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