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Jailing texters

December 5, 2012 12:10 am

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THE STATISTICS prove it: Text-ing while driving is inherently dangerous. Now, what's Virginia going to do about it?

Twenty years ago, software engineer Neil Papworth sent the very first text message--"Merry Christmas"--to an associate, Richard Jarvis. Perhaps the message should have been, "What hath man wrought?" Because two decades later, the facts are clear: Many of us are addicted to our cellphones, and some of us to texting--including while we are behind the wheel of a 4,000-pound vehicle traveling down the highway at high speeds. What are we thinking?

Drivers who send or receive texts are 23 times more likely to get into an accident, notes a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study. Sending or reading a text at 55 mph is the equivalent to driving the length of a football field blind. There's a whole lot that can happen in 100 yards.

Four years ago, Virginia stepped into the 21st century, passing a law that makes texting while driving illegal. But it's a secondary offense, like not wearing a seat belt. You have to be stopped for something else before an officer can charge you with texting.

Now a move is afoot in the General Assembly to ramp up the state's law by making texting a primary offense, and possibly folding it into the definition of reckless driving. That could make it punishable by a hefty fine and a year in jail. Says Del. Benjamin Cline, R-Rockbridge, "The potential for jail time will hopefully send a message that we're serious about it."

Gov. McDonnell, questioned on WTOP's "Ask the Governor" program, said he thinks that texting is already covered under the reckless-, improper-, and aggressive-driving statutes. But a recent ruling in Fairfax may contradict that: A judge dropped the reckless driving charge against the driver in a pedestrian-fatality case, ruling that Virginia law considers texting while driving a minor infraction--not proof per se of recklessness.

DO LAWS WORK?

This suggests the need for a legislative fix. But in the rush to counter a proven danger, lawmakers shouldn't overshoot the goal. Tightening the laws may heighten public awareness, but will it actually lower crashes? A 2010 study by the Institute for Highway Safety found that texting bans in four states did nothing to reduce accidents. In fact, the study finds that one "unexpected consequence" of tough texting laws is that drivers seem to attempt to "avoid fines by hiding their phones from view. If this causes them to take their eyes off the road more than before the ban, then the bans may make texting more dangerous rather than eliminating it."

Even so, interested groups like AAA Mid-Atlantic and Drive Smart are pushing for a "primary offense" texting law. That would bring the state into alignment with its neighbors. Thirty-seven states ban texting while driving, and in all but four it's an offense in itself. What's more, texting while driving is a growing problem. The Virginia Crime Commission reports that in 2010, officers handed out 285 tickets for texting, yielding 229 convictions. This year, just through October, those numbers jumped to 511 and 414.

A Drive Smart survey found that 94 percent of drivers agree that texting (or emailing) behind the wheel is unacceptable. A AAA Mid-Atlantic study shows that 33 percent of drivers had done it anyway within the previous month. The sound of a text arriving solicits a Pavlovian response in many of us, it seems, one we can't resist until the car in front of us is in our lap.

The General Assembly should address this issue. Make texting a primary offense. But reserve jail time for the most egregious cases that result in actual harm to people. And let's get the message out: Texts can wait.





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