By Larry Copeland
The fight against distracted driving may be at a tipping point as 23 states debate legislation to ban texting while driving, a practice 19 states already prohibit.
"Legislators are looking to see if it (texting) is enough of a safety issue that they need to intervene," says Anne Teigen, a transportation specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, who says 194 bills concerning various forms of distracted driving, including texting, are being debated in 34 states. "They often get involved because there's a high-profile accident that had to do with texting. Also, because everybody has a cellphone now."
Justin McNaull, auto club AAA's director of state relations, says he expects "a dozen or more" new texting bans to pass this year. "There's clear public disapproval of the behavior, and there's strong public support for a law," he says.
Wisconsin state Rep. Peter Barca says he got interested "primarily just from hearing from constituents within my district and then seeing news accounts of the dangers of this." Barca, a Democrat, says that last year he could get support only for banning texting for drivers under 18. Last week, a ban for all drivers passed the state Assembly 89-6. Gov. Jim Doyle is expected to sign it, Barca says.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood joined the National Safety Council to announce the launch of FocusDriven, a national non-profit organization modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving to combat distracted driving.
"I'm kind of at a loss as to why every state doesn't have a no-texting law," says Jennifer Smith, president of the new group. "That's a no-brainer."
The Department of Transportation says 5,870 people - 16% of all highway fatalities - died in distracted-driving crashes and 515,000 were injured in 2008.
Smith's mother, Linda Doyle, 61, was killed in 2008 in Oklahoma City by a driver who was using a phone, Smith says. "He admitted he was on the phone and never saw the light," she says.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has introduced federal legislation to ban texting or e-mailing while driving. States that didn't go along would risk losing 25% of their federal highway funds.
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