A PSA can’t solve this problem

This information was included in a press release we received recently from the SD Office of Highway Safety:

"Twenty-three times more likely to be in a crash or near-crash. According to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, those are your odds if you send text messages while driving.

And a study by Car and Driver magazine shows it takes drivers 70 feet to hit the brakes when sending a text message, compared to four feet when legally drunk. Findings like these are prompting the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety to take action in hopes of reducing distracted driving in the state.

The office has developed a shocking public service announcement to raise awareness of the dangers of texting and driving. The 30 second television spot confronts viewers with the risk they pose not only to themselves, but also to others when texting while driving.

"The ultimate goal of the texting while driving spot is to keep South Dakota's drivers and roadways safe," says Lee Axdahl, director of the Office of Highway Safety. "We want to educate the public about this dangerous, deadly habit. Sending a quick text message may seem inconsequential, but taking your eyes off the road, even for a few seconds to send a short message, could cost a life."

South Dakota should be doing more than hoping to stop this dangerous activity by showing televised PSAs that really may not get through to a teenager intent on texting while behind the wheel.

There ought to be a law. We almost had one — a piece of legislation that at least would have been a start. It was introduced by District 17 Rep. Eldon Nygaard of Vermillion. And, it promptly crashed while being debated in the SD House, with a contributing no vote from District 17's other state representative, Jamie Boomgarden of Chancellor.

Nygaard's bill, had it been approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, would be in effect today. It 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.

Boomgarden stated earlier this year that Nygaard's 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."

Nygaard's bill didn't fail us. Our lawmakers failed us.

The Office of Highway Safety, the organization that is currently running the anti-texting television spot in South Dakota, administers the Federal Highway Safety Grant Program in our state, enabling local/state agencies and non-profit organizations to develop and implement traffic safety programs designed to reduce the number of traffic crashes, injuries and fatalities occurring on South Dakota roadways. The purpose of the Office of Highway Safety is to minimize, as much as realistically possible, the human and economic loss that results from traffic crashes.

Our legislators should share that same purpose. They failed miserably earlier this year.

We ask our readers, and especially South Dakota lawmakers to note that according to a news report published in the New York Times last summer, researchers have 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 the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute mentioned above.

Earlier this year, 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.

And 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.

Rep. Nygaard plans to introduce his legislation again during next year's legislative session. We're encouraged by that. We just hope it doesn't suffer the same fate and fail once again in Pierre.

Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech institute, said the 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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