Driving while text messaging?

Published 12:46 am Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The vehicle two car lengths ahead is weaving between lanes, even occasionally running off the road before correcting itself, only to begin weaving once again.

Is the driver drunk or operating a cell phone?

Either way, it’s dangerous, and if one Alabama lawmaker has his way, it could mean fines or the loss of his or her license, if a driver is caught operating a cell phone while behind the wheel.

Introduced by state Rep. Jim McClendon (R-Springville), the bill would ban text messaging by drivers of all ages, as well as revive an effort to ban drivers from talking on mobile phones without hands-free devices while driving.

“The issue here is distraction,” McClendon said. “A person texting is using one or both hands, and he has got to look at what he is doing. So a person is losing both hands and his eyes while operating a motor vehicle. It doesn’t get much worse than that.”

Speaker of the House Seth Hammett (D-Andalusia) said from a safety perspective, he is very much in favor of the bill.

“Cell phones and handheld devices were never intended to undermine public safety,” Hammett said. “It only makes sense that the only thing you need to be doing behind the wheel of a vehicle is driving unimpaired. But from an enforcement perspective, I know it will be difficult for police officers to see whether a driver is text messaging or not.”

Texting behind the wheel has been linked to many traffic tragedies, including a commuter train wreck in California that left 25 people dead. A recent study by Nationwide Insurance revealed that 19 percent of drivers indulge in this bad practice, and among drivers ages 18 to 27, the numbers get even worse, with 37 percent texting while driving.

“To me, it’s a no brainer,” Andalusia Police Chief Wilbur Williams said. “Anything that impairs the driver’s ability to operate a vehicle should be outlawed.

“People fail to realize when they are operating a vehicle — that’s a 3,000-pound object or a bullet — that it needs all of their attention to get to its designated location,” he said. “It needs their full uninterrupted attention.”

Williams agreed with both Hammett’s and McClendon’s position.

“In this day and time, we all talk about multitasking,” Williams said. “Driving and text messaging are not two of the things that people should feel they need to practice together. Someone could get really hurt.”

Williams said those who text while driving also exhibit the same driving tendencies as impaired drivers — tendencies that get noticed by law enforcement personnel.

“Those flaws are replicated just as if the person was under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” he said. “They have a tendency to drift, to make erratic corrections. Their response time to other outside situations is diminished.

“That driver is concentrating on: one, typing that message and two, sending that message. Never mind the other things that are happening around them.

“They have to consider that vehicle, other vehicles on the road, pedestrians and themselves,” he said. “That’s a lot to worry about while you’re on the road. That vehicle needs your undivided attention.”

Under the plan, a driver convicted the first time for texting or talking on a phone without a hands-free device would be fined $25 and lose three points; the second time, he or she would get a $50 fine and lose three additional points; the third time, a $75 fine and lose another three points. On the fourth conviction in a two-year period, the driver’s license would be suspended for 60 days.

After a traffic conviction is two years old, the lost points are restored, but the conviction remains on a driver’s record, according to the Alabama Department of Public Safety.