A Golden Triangle state representative says laws against texting while driving are almost assured to pass this legislative term.
State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, says the prohibition is inevitable and should face little resistance from other congressmen in Jackson. Chism is one of 10 lawmakers from the Miss. House and Senate to attach their names to individual bills that, if passed, would prohibit drivers to text message and utilize social media networks on their smartphones while operating a motor vehicle.
Chism filed his third annual attempt to curb the dangerous behavior almost at the start of this legislative term.
Last year, his attempt died on the calendar after moving through the House’s subcommittee on transportation and a joint conference committee with senators. In 2013, HB 768 died in committee.
“(A law against) texting while driving is going to pass this year, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Chism said. “We have laws against drunk driving and other impairments. Texting is as great of an impairment as drunk driving. It’s a major public safety hazard that more and more people are guilty of.”
Chism’s bill bans drivers from “writing, sending or reading” texts and from “accessing, reading or posting to” social networking sites while operating a moving vehicle. It sets a $25 civil penalty per violation after July 1, but the fine increases to $100 after July 1, 2016.
House Highways and Transportation Committee members have not scheduled his bill on the calendar, but members have provided almost identical substitutes for two other bills — HB 41 and 389.
In the Senate, similar bills would allow the usage of global positioning systems but not texting, while setting fines at even higher rates. Specifically, SB 2044 states texting while driving would constitute careless driving.
None of the Senate’s five texting-related bills have been scheduled for committee action.
As currently written, Miss. Code Ann. 63-1-73 bans the usage of wireless communication devices by those operating under intermediate licenses or learner’s permits. Bus drivers are also banned from texting while driving except in emergencies.
While the Legislature could pass a law that applies to drivers of all ages, Chism said cities like Starkville — college towns with a high number of younger, inexperienced drivers — could experience more benefits of enforcement than others.
Since drivers usually do not offer information about whether they were texting and driving when a wreck occurred, a Starkville Police Department representative was unable to give specific data on the matter.
Realistically, the spokesperson said, more wrecks are attributed to texting while driving than admitted.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that driver distraction caused 18 percent of all fatal crashes in the U.S. in 2012, while 11 percent of drivers aged 18-20, who were involved in a wreck and survived, admitted to sending or receiving texts when they crashed.
“Enforcement will be tricky, but it’s a start,” Chism said. “I’ll have to admit that I’ve been engrossed in a phone call — maybe I talked 30 minutes and I didn’t realize where I was at. My eyes were on the road, and I kept a hand on the steering wheel the whole time, unlike texting. It’s clear we have to do something to help control this issue. It’s growing by the day.”
Earlier this month, Starkville residents complained about younger drivers and their perceived impact on the road — more wrecks on Miss. Highway 12, they said — to Northern Miss. Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert.
Congestion issues, he said, could be eased with improvements to the heavily traveled road’s traffic lights, which could then possibly reduce the number of accidents.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch