Between the Lines: This issue isn’t ‘us versus them’

In February of 2010, we applauded then Democratic District 17 Rep. Eldon Nygaard of Vermillion for introducing a bill – HB 1178 – in the South Dakota House that, if approved, would have made texting while driving a criminal offense.

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.

A few things have changed since then. Nygaard is now a Republican, having switched parties shortly after being elected to the South Dakota Senate in November 2010.

What isn't known is if Nygaard can persuade his Republican colleagues in the Senate, who hold all but five seats in that chamber of the Legislature, to go along with him this time when he introduces similar legislation in the upcoming session.

He remains passionate about this issue. That's always a good start. And, perhaps, some recent developments will help more lawmakers adopt Nygaard's point of view concerning this issue.

According to a report in Wednesday's Sioux Falls Argus Leader, The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday recommended that states ban cell phone use while driving, except in emergencies.

It's unclear whether lawmakers in South Dakota – one of 15 states without such a restriction – could muster the votes for passage.

The recommendation, unanimously agreed to by the five-member board, applies to both hands-free and hand-held phones and significantly exceeds any existing state laws restricting texting and cell phone use behind the wheel.

The Argus Leader notes that Nygaard has sponsored or cosponsored texting legislation for the past three years.

"And I'll be sponsoring it once again this year," he said, "because about three years ago the National Transportation Safety Board announced that cell phone abuse had eclipsed drunk driving in causing death or serious injury in car crashes.

"I don't know if we have to get another MADD group together or what it's going to take, but we need to wake up," he added.

The Transportation Board made its recommendation in connection with a deadly highway pileup in Missouri last year. The board said the initial collision in the accident near Gray Summit, MO, was caused by the inattention of a 19-year-old-pickup driver who sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes immediately before the crash.

The pickup, traveling at 55 mph, collided into the back of a tractor truck that had slowed for highway construction. The pickup was rear-ended by a school bus that overrode the smaller vehicle. A second school bus rammed into the back of the first bus.

The pickup driver and a 15-year-old student on one of the school buses died; 38 other people were injured in the Aug. 5, 2010, accident.

The accident is a "big red flag for all drivers," NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said at a meeting to determine the cause of the accident and make safety recommendations.

It's not possible to know from cell phone records whether the driver was typing, reaching for the phone or reading a text at the time of the crash, but it's clear he was manually, cognitively and visually distracted, she said.

"Driving was not his only priority," Hersman said. "No call, no text, no update is worth a human life." (Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Dec. 14).

Naturally, being a life-long South Dakota, I'm quite familiar with a predominant trait of those of us who have decided to make this state our home.

­We don't like to be told what to do. And we REALLY don't like to be told what we can't do.

Wearing seat belts? It's hard to argue against there use, but a lot of people feel it should be their decision, not Uncle Sam's.

Same goes with riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Or not being able to smoke in bars and restaurants.

If we're truly honest with ourselves, a significant number of us may agree that, yes, it's a good idea to always wear a seat belt while driving. It's a good idea to wear a helmet while on a motorcycle (even though our state only requires helmets for those 17 and under). And air free of cigarette smoke does make breathing a pleasant experience in bars, restaurants and other public places. 

Not everyone will agree that the government should sanction good ideas like the ones listed above.

State Rep. Betty Olson, a Republican from Prairie City in northwestern South Dakota, was on the House Local Government panel that killed the measure last session.

Olson is a paramedic with an ambulance service in Buffalo. We assume she's likely seen her fair share of auto crashes, and the terrible loss and injuries that often accompany them.

She opposes any bans on cell phone use in automobiles, stating, in essence, that talking on a cell phone or texting are stupid things to be doing while driving, but drivers, in her view, do a lot of stupid things while behind the wheel. She also notes that distracted driving statutes already make cell phone use illegal, and that a texting ban would be unnecessary and difficult to enforce.

We hope that South Dakotans will eventually realize that trying to promote greater traffic safety is a laudable goal. One way to reach that goal is to try to better control the use, by some motorists, of cell phones while they are behind the wheel.

This isn't an "us versus them" issue. The government isn't "them." The government has, and always will be, "us."

"We, the people" really can make a difference. We support Nygaard's plans and hope that citizens across South Dakota will support him as he tries, once more, to make some progress on this issue.

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