Between the Lines: I’m all for less damage and grief

What I'm about to tell you is true. It actually happened. I am not making this up.

Last Friday night, at the conclusion of the Tanager boys' basketball game in the Vermillion High School gymnasium, I slung my camera bag over my shoulder and joined the stream of people of all ages that began making their way through the school commons to the exit leading to the parking lot.

Hours before, the janitor had cleared the commons of tables. We all had a wide-open space to walk across to get to the door. I followed a high school student who took advantage of the lack of obstacles. She opened her cell phone and began texting.

I was a bit jealous of her. Her fingers flew; she certainly seemed adept at multi-tasking as she walked, concentrating on punching out an electronic message as she bobbed and weaved along with the rest of us as we streamed toward the exit.

Everything was going smoothly. And then – and I am not making this up – someone who had been holding one of the outer doors open released his grip on the door so he could step outside.

The door began to swing shut. The high schooler walking in front of me was so focused on texting that she walked right into the door.

She stepped back, perplexed for just a moment, trying to figure out what happened. If she was physically hurt, or if her pride took a momentary beating, it didn't show.

She simply moved on. And I internally expressed a silent wish that she wouldn't be getting behind the wheel of a car in the parking lot. Or that she took driving more seriously than walking. Or both.

Just two days earlier, the South Dakota State Affairs Committee voted 10-3 to kill a measure that would have prohibited the use of cell phones and other handheld devices to write, send or read text-based communications while driving. It would not have banned the use of hands-free devices for texting.

The measure's main sponsor, Rep. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, contends it's time to ban texting by drivers because it leads to traffic accidents.

No one spoke against the measure during the committee hearing, but committee members say they doubt law enforcement officers would be able to enforce a ban on texting while driving.

A similar bill, introduced by Sen. Eldon Nygaard of Vermillion, passed the Senate last year but was defeated by the House.

"This year, we've already killed the texting bill. I can't for the life of me understand that," District 17 Rep. Tom Jones told Vermillion citizens at a cracker barrel meeting Saturday. " I know that how you may enforce (such a law) is a big question, but I think a lot of people would stop texting because we are South Dakotans and because if something is against the law, we won't do it."

"The texting bill had 12 proponents that worked hard on it, and the reason was that the National Transportation Safety Board released figures four years ago that said that cell phone abuse and text messaging have resulted in more deaths and serious bodily harm than drunk driving in this country," Nygaard said Saturday. "We should perk up and say, 'Maybe it's time to do something.'"

Nygaard said this year's texting bill had his support along with 11 other lawmakers who served as proponents. Representatives of South Dakota's medical and insurance industries and state law enforcement all voiced support for the legislation.

"For the opponents, it was as if they never testified," Nygaard said at Saturday's meeting with local citizens, describing how the legislation was killed in committee. "I think it's up to you now, as members of the public, if that's what you are in favor of – you need to start letting officials know that. I think the ban will eventually happen; we see it happening more in others states who are trying to save lives and keep things safe on the highways."

When the Sioux Falls Argus Leader posted a story telling of the bill's demise on its web page Feb. 1, a string of comments from readers followed. Some were upset that state lawmakers, once again, decided this legislation-lacked merit.

Some were happy to see that the proposal had been killed. A few of the naysayers defended their stance against the measure by using weak arguments.

For example, "Tom Coolhotscooter Smith" writes: "Texting while driving is bad. We all know that. But so is eating, smoking, reading a newspaper, putting on fingernail polish and make-up, dealing with kids in the backseat, etc. This is called distracted driving and there is a law to handle that. All an overzealous officer would have to do to see if someone is breaking any law while driving around he could say he thought the driver was texting …"

There are good reasons that no laws exist that prohibit one from, while operating a motor vehicle, reaching to take the next drag from the cigarette smoldering in a car's ashtray, or yelling at kids in the back seat, or tuning a car radio. These activities have not been identified as major safety threats.

Texting while driving is a much different story. This activity has already been deemed dangerous, with 34 states adopting texting and driving bans, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In 2009, nearly 5,500 people died and half a million were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. Distraction-related fatalities represented 16 percent of traffic fatalities in 2009, the agency said. It's unclear how many of those fatalities can be blamed on texting.

"If you look down to text for just a few seconds at 55 miles per hour, your car travels the length of a football field while you're not looking at the road," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said late last year. "Texting and talking on the phone while driving can be deadly, and drivers have a responsibility to put away these distracting devices every time they get behind the wheel."

Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, notes that a recent study by the association discovered, among many things, that reading or writing a text message behind the wheel more than doubles a driver's reaction time.

Said Adkins, "Texting while driving is dangerous and drivers really don't have any business texting while driving; no text is that important."

The "difficult to enforce" excuse that South Dakota lawmakers so easily express, including District 17's Rep. Jamie Boomgarden, is also pretty lame.

Retired Circuit Judge Art Rusch of Vermillion made this clear at Saturday's Cracker Barrel meeting.

"I've been involved in law enforcement for approximately 40 years, and I've never heard the argument made that because something may be tough to enforce, it shouldn't be made into a law," he said, addressing his comments specifically to Nygaard and Jones who support a ban on texting while driving.  "If that's going to be a criteria, then why don't they get rid of the laws that forbid murder, because that's too expensive and difficult to enforce? That argument is just ludicrous, and I applaud both of you for supporting the ban on texting because clearly all of the research shows that it lead to lots of damage and grief."

I'm for less damage and grief. Here's hoping that someday, enough state legislators will share that sentiment.

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