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Iowa Legislature should move to ban texting while driving

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 01, 2010 7:30 AM

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It’s really a no-brainer: Text-messaging while driving is a bad idea.

The effects are well-documented; with texters glancing at their cell phones for an average of six seconds at a time, their car is traveling the length of an entire football field — including end zones — without their attention. It’s more dangerous than drunk driving, according to a 2009 study from Car and Driver magazine. More than 200,000 of car accidents nationwide are caused by driving while texting, according to a report from the National Safety Council.

“Texting is really the worst of the worst,” Daniel McGehee, the director of the UI Public Policy Center’s Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Program, told The Daily Iowan in January.

Seeking to clamp down on this dangerous behavior, state lawmakers are considering a ban text-messaging while driving. We support legislators’ efforts, with a few caveats.

The Iowa House of Representatives and Senate have both passed legislation that would ban the sending of text, instant, and e-mail messages while driving. The House’s version of the bill would extend the ban to include the act of reading said messages. Under both of these bills, violators would not be issued tickets until one year after the legislation was enacted; warnings would be issued during this transitional period. Once that year was over, violators would face fines of $30, which would balloon to $100 with court costs.

The Senate’s version will most likely be rewritten to include readers as well as writers of messages, Rep. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, told the Editorial Board. The Senate was reluctant to add reading to the bill because of public-transit jobs that require drivers to receive messages from their dispatchers, said Hanson, a member of the House Transportation Committee. The bill could be reworked to ban reading messages without interfering with the work of these employees, he said.

The issue looks to be a political win for legislators. A UI survey released in January found that 97 percent of parents surveyed backed a ban on texting while driving. While we also support the legislation, questions remain about its efficacy if implemented.

Any measure’s effectiveness is inherently limited by the ability of an officer to discern cell-phone use that’s allowed and banned. Proving that violators were sending or reading messages may prove impossible for officers. It could even border on unconstitutional if an officer attempts to search the accused driver’s text-message in box or sent-message history.

Lawmakers would be wise to include language clearly codifying the parameters of police enforcement. While we support efforts to curtail this behavior, it shouldn’t be an excuse to infringe on Iowans’ privacy.

There are other obvious flaws. Simply put, the legislation simply cannot block all distractions on the road.

“There are thousands of distractions,” Hanson said. “We’re trying to look at the worst of the worst because we can’t legislate them all.”

Some opponents to the legislation see this issue as a never-ending struggle for personal liberties.

Citizens should, after all, have the right to make their own decisions concerning whether it is safe for them to send and read messages on their own cell phones, right? And if the government is allowed to control this decision, what is next?

This argument plays to the visceral anti-government stance but disregards the danger those who text while driving pose to others on the road. Texting while driving isn’t an intrinsically victimless offense.

“We have a window here to send the message that [texting while driving] is not a good idea,” Hanson said.

He’s right. The proposed legislation certainly has its flaws. But lawmakers would be right to pass legislation in some form that bans texting while driving. Prohibiting this immature behavior would undoubtedly persuade some to cut down on their in-transit text messaging. In addition, legislators should include language clearly laying out how far officers can go in proving a driver was texting or reading a text message.

Still, what’s perhaps most important is for UI students and other citizens to self-regulate. The repercussions of texting-related collisions are simply too astounding to be met with a passive sense of negligence. Iowans should be smart enough to realize the idiocy of driving and texting.


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