Federal involvement would be a good thing

For people concerned with driver safety, especially the operation of motor vehicles by young people, there is a positive trend sweeping the country.

This movement is growing so in strength that we encourage the federal government to get involved.

We know that many South Dakotans will likely resist our suggestion that the federal government step in on this issue – specifically, a ban on texting while driving.

We make this plea with the full realization that many South Dakotans fear that Washington is, in piecemeal fashion, taking over more and more of our lives.

It makes sense for the federal government to become involved in this issue, however. And we aren't suggesting this because we're still sore that legislation introduced by our district's state representative, Eldon Nygaard, that would have made texting while driving a criminal offense,  was voted down by the Legislature earlier this year.

We just think it makes sense.

On April 28, Michigan became the 24th state to ban texting while driving, while two other states, Kentucky and Nebraska, approved similar bans earlier.

Michigan's new law takes effect in July.

We hope that this spate of anti-texting legislation, combined with a broader patchwork of laws in the states concerning the use of phones while driving, will heighten pressure on Congress to come up with a national standard.

The Obama administration has sought to crack down on distracted driving, calling it an epidemic. But sweeping legislation has not been put on the fast track in Congress. The administration held a two-day summit on distracted driving last fall, and Obama has issued an executive order banning federal workers from texting while driving, if they are on official government business or are using a government vehicle or phone. Separately, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called for a ban on texting while driving for bus and truck drivers who cross state lines, The Associated Press reported.

Among the questions that have arisen in states that have debated distracted driving legislation is whether such offenses should be "primary" or "secondary" – that is, whether police can pull over offenders simply for improperly using a phone while driving, or whether there must be another violation, too. That was a sticking point in Michigan, but legislators ultimately decided to make texting while driving a primary offense.

What you are about to read may seem familiar. We first shared this information in an opinion piece last February. It's worth a re-read.

Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute discovered last summer that when drivers are texting, 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 earlier this year to hear that Nygaard plans to introduce his legislation again during next year's legislative session.

And, if our state Legislature again refuses to go along with Nygaard's reasonable idea, we hope eventually Congress will take action.

Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, said the message of his organization's study is clear.

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

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