By Travis Gulbrandson
According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 15 people are killed each day and more than 1,200 people are injured in crashes that were reported to involve a distracted driver.
In 2009 alone, more than 5,400 died and approximately 448,000 more were injured.
One of the biggest distractions for drivers today is the use of text messaging, which is why the Vermillion City Council is now at work on a texting-while-driving ban.
The decision to begin the process was made at a meeting held Monday afternoon, following the state legislature’s failure to pass similar measures.
“I think that if the state law eventually happens, it will be because enough cities are going to have done it and it’ll create a tipping point,” said council member Kelsey Collier-Wise. “It’s going to have to come from the municipalities that have to deal with it a little bit more.”
Council member John Grayson agreed, saying, “I think we should take a leadership role in it. I think it would help with the other cities to put a peg in the ground and say this is the right thing to do.”
Vermillion Police Chief Matt Betzen was on hand during the meeting to provide the council members with information regarding a possible texting ban.
He said he would support such a ban, as it sends a clear message to drivers about legal expectations.
“Right now, technically, if you’re texting and driving, and you get into an accident or cause some kind of motor vehicle obstruction … you’ve committed reckless driving or careless driving,” Betzen said.
“One of the opponents was saying, ‘This is already against the law,’ and it is to an extent,” he said. “If you’re out texting and driving and get into an accident, we can charge you with reckless driving. It doesn’t address the behavior before the reckless driving, though.”
If an accident doesn’t happen, law enforcement can’t prove reckless driving, he said.
“Right now, if they’re just driving down the road and I see someone (texting), it’s very hard for me to address that behavior, because nothing has happened,” Betzen said. “If they’re stopped at a stop sign doing their text messaging, there’s really nothing against the law for doing that at this point.
“They’re not engaged with driving, so they shouldn’t be doing that, but there’s no tool for addressing that,” he said.
Betzen added that an actual texting law would go a long way toward deterring people.
“The reality is, most people do what the law says they’re supposed to do,” he said. “Even if some people are willing to violate the law, they usually stay within the parameters of close to where the law is.
“I’m speculating that some people may go faster than the posted speed limit, but they usually stay within a few miles of it, because that’s where the deterrent is, and they know the further they get away from that deterrent, the more likely they are to get into trouble,” he said.
There are weaknesses, however. For one thing, the law would be difficult to enforce. In its first month of enacting a ban on texting while driving, Sioux Falls police wrote only one ticket for the offense.
Another weakness is that change can be painful, Betzen said.
“When we do write that ticket, someone’s going to come and complain to you, the council that passed this ordinance, because it’s unfair,” he said. “That’s a weakness of any type of ordinance that you pass, that … people are going to be upset whenever they get the ticket.”
Perhaps the biggest weakness, Betzen said, is that South Dakota does not have a consistent law on the matter.
Currently, only Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown and Huron have enacted texting bans.
“You might even say it’s unfair if you’re driving from Yankton to here, and Yankton doesn’t have a law, and we say we do have a law. There’s a different expectation,” Betzen said.
One way to cut down on confusion would be to post signs at city entry points, he said.
Collier-Wise said that while it’s a good thing there are representatives from each county in the state serving in the legislature, this could also have led to the texting bills’ failures to pass on a state level.
“Part of the problem is … there are a lot of places that have very different traffic issues than the 10 largest cities, and obviously where you’re seeing this happening is where the populations are,” she said. “Maybe out in the middle of Perkins County, it’s just not that much of an issue, but they don’t have to deal with thousands of students coming in every year that use texting as a primary means of communication.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think they necessarily … have the same priorities we do (on the issue),” she said.
Betzen agreed, adding, “I think it’s one of the biggest issues in our society, like drunk driving was when I came into law enforcement 25 years ago. It’s the right thing to do to say this isn’t the right thing to do. The right thing is to pass a state law. It’s unfortunate the state chose not to pass a law.”
The council members present at the meeting agreed to have the city attorney look into the wording such a law will require. No formal action was taken.