This past summer a bill was introduced in the United States Senate to require states to adopt federally set minimum penalties for writing, sending, or reading text messages while driving. The bill requires states to pass laws prohibiting text messaging or forfeit 25 percent of highway financing, which would amount to losing hundreds of millions in federal transportation funds. States would have two years to comply and could recover lost funds once they passed acceptable laws.
A companion bill has been introduced in the House. The Senate bill is called the Alert Drivers Act of 2009 and is also known as the Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act of 2009. The American Medical Association recently identified cell phone texting while driving as a public health risk. The bill followed several high-profile crashes involving text messaging.
In September 2008, the worst train crash in 15 years took place in Los Angeles when a train conductor receiving and sending text messages went through a red light and collided with a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring 135. In May 2009, a MBTA trolley in Boston ran a red light and crashed into another trolley. The conductor admitted to texting his girlfriend when the accident took place. Forty-nine people were injured.
Support for the ban on text messaging has now come from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which has enacted a new policy encouraging every state to ban texting behind the wheel for all drivers. When the bill was introduced, the GHSA said that it did not believe that the federal government needed to sanction states that do not pass cell phone or texting while driving bans.
The GHSA instead initially recommended other measures the federal government can take to help states best respond to distracted driving. These included:
- Fund research to develop effective methods for enforcing texting and cell phone bans.
- Fund research to determine the nature and scope of the distracted driving problem.
- Fund a media campaign to alert the public to the dangers of distracted driving.
- Develop model policies for employers encouraging them to ban cell phone use/texting by all employees driving for business purposes.
- Provide financial incentives for states that pass comprehensive graduated licensing laws that include cell phone/texting bans for new drivers.
Studies suggest that drivers who send or receive a text message tend to take their eyes off the road for about five seconds, enough time for a vehicle going at highway speed to travel more than 100 yards. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that truckers sending text messages are 23 times more likely to cause a crash or near-crash than a non-texting trucker. It is believed that the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute report played a significant role in bringing the GHSA around to support the Senate bill. Fewer than 20 states prohibit texting while driving. And some of those statutes, like New Yorks new law, impose minor fines and a negligible enforcement scheme that allows police officers to penalize a driver for the offense only if stopped for another infraction, such as a broken taillight or speeding.
According to its website, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) is the states’ voice on highway safety. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, GHSA represents the state and territorial highway safety offices that implement programs to address behavioral issues, including occupant protection, impaired driving, speeding, aggressive driving, distracted driving, motorcycle safety, and pedestrian and bicycle safety. GHSA Members also address issues associated with mature and younger drivers. Beyond behavioral issues, GHSA and its Members deal with other aspects of highway safety, such as traffic records and training. Members are appointed by their governors to lead state highway safety agencies.
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