City should begin mulling texting ban

Last February, I wrote about my experience following a Tanager boys' basketball game in the Vermillion High School gymnasium. After the game, I joined a 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 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, while cringing, 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.

Texting while driving has grown to be an even more cringe-worthy topic today in South Dakota. What some people have been fearing for some time has become reality.

South Dakotans no longer have to wonder if texting while driving may cause a fatality accident in our fair state. The evidence is beginning to build.

About two years ago a Mitchell man was stopped on his motorcycle behind two other vehicles at a state Highway 38 construction site a few miles east of that city. He was fatally struck from behind by a pickup, and it was later discovered the driver of the pickup had received and read a text message around the time of the crash.

A man accused last July of fatally injuring a motorcyclist while he was speeding and texting in Sioux Falls is facing manslaughter charges.

Earlier this month, in action no doubt inspired by that tragic accident, the Sioux Falls City Council approved an ordinance that bans texting while driving in the city. The law kicks in at the end of September, meaning police can soon pull over drivers for texting while operating a motor vehicle.  It's a ticket that carries a $200 fine, even for a first offense.

Mitchell is now considering implementing a similar ban. As we watch somewhat from afar, we encourage the Vermillion City Council to consider the possibility of one day introducing a similar ordinance that bans texting while driving within city limits.

Few people, if any, encourage texting while driving. The debate centers more around whether it is the government's role to ban it or a personal responsibility of the driver not to do it and whether police can adequately enforce it.

It is just such a debate that has stalled efforts in the last few years by the South Dakota Legislature to ban texting while driving statewide. A Canton legislator introduced a bill calling for a ban on texting and driving during the 2012 legislative session.

It didn't survive. A similar bill introduced by Sen. Eldon Nygaard in 2011 also ultimately failed to gain enough support.

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."

We realize that continued arguments about the difficulty of enforcement may make it impossible for state lawmakers to pass a texting ban.

Sioux Falls, however, will soon offer South Dakotans concrete evidence concerning the effectiveness of such a ban. If Mitchell follows suit, more facts can be gathered.

We encourage Vermillion city leaders to keep a close watch on what's happening in Sioux Falls, and perhaps, eventually, Mitchell.

If hard data shows that a texting ban can realistically make traveling on streets and highways safer, we hope our aldermen, too, will consider such a regulation.

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