Texting ban justified by safety data, bill's supporters say
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Dec 17, 2011 | 5165 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This safely arranged photo illustration shows how communication devices and transportation devices sometimes are employed together. (Anniston Star illustration by Bran Strickland and Trent Penny)
This safely arranged photo illustration shows how communication devices and transportation devices sometimes are employed together. (Anniston Star illustration by Bran Strickland and Trent Penny)
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Jim McClendon knows it’s dangerous to text while driving.

He’s done it himself.

“Just about everybody’s done it, even if it’s something as simple as ‘OK’,” said McClendon, a Republican state legislator from Springville. “But it would be just fine if we eliminated all of that.”

McClendon has pre-filed a bill that would ban texting while driving anywhere in Alabama. It’s not his first try. Earlier this year, he got a texting-while-driving ban through the House, only to see it die in the Senate.

When the bill comes before the House in February, however, McClendon might have an extra arrow in his quiver. On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board went on the offensive against distracted driving, declaring that all cell phone use while driving is dangerous, and asking states to ban drivers from texting or talking on electronic devices while behind the wheel.

The NTSB announcement came with a stack of reports on cell phone use and driver safety. According to U.S. Department of Transportation, distracted driving caused about 3,000 of the nation’s roughly 32,000 traffic fatalities in 2010. When the department placed observers at stoplights to count cell phone users, they found that 5 percent of drivers had a cell phone to their ear at any given time — 6 percent in Southeastern states. That adds up to 660,000 cell-phone-using drivers on the road nationwide at any given time, the federal data show.

That’s no big surprise to Jacksonville Police Chief Tommy Thompson. He said his officers patrolling the college town have encountered all sorts of distracted drivers. People text while driving, they eat hamburgers, they put on makeup, and they even engage in a little hanky-panky.

Catching them, however, is another matter.

A year ago, Jacksonville passed a ban on texting while driving, making it the first city in Calhoun County, and one of a few statewide, to ban the practice. In August, Thompson said only one person had been ticketed under the ban. On Wednesday, Thompson said there hasn’t been a citation since then.

“It’s a hard thing to prove,” Thompson said, noting that people often hold their devices out of public view when texting. “If it were a ban on cell phones generally, that would be easier to enforce. You can see when someone has a phone held up to their ear.”

Built-in distractions

Thompson thinks the problem will eventually lead to a broader ban — either on cell phone use or on any form of distracted driving. And he thinks that ban, if it comes, will come from the top down.

“It’ll have to be a statewide thing,” he said. “It’ll probably be like other highway rules from the federal government. They’ll tell you to ban it, or deny you highway funds if you don’t.”

Thompson said he supports tighter distracted-driving laws, on the grounds that they’ll save lives, but he’s sympathetic to drivers and their distractions. After all, CD players and GPS devices are often built right into the car.

“People get a CD out, they put it in, they fiddle with the volume,” he said. “That’s just as distracting as some of these other things.”

State Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, is another reluctant supporter. He said he supported the texting-ban bill the first time around, and will do it again, but he worries about where to draw the line. People get distracted by eating and other tasks, he said, but he wishes they’d be ruled by common sense, rather than a law.

“You’d think people would have better sense than to use a cell phone in the car,” he said in a telephone interview. “But here I am talking to you on the highway. I’m at a stoplight 18th and Quintard and the woman who just pulled up is on the phone, too.”

‘Personal reasons’

If Wood is defying his own common sense, he’s not alone. Statistics show that Americans overwhelmingly support tighter restrictions on distracted driving — even though most of us do it.

McClendon, the legislator, said statewide GOP polling data found that 91 percent of Alabamians supported his texting ban.

“That’s every race, every age,” he said. “You’re really hard-pressed to get 90 percent of Alabamians to agree on anything.”

A nationwide poll by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2010 found that 9 out of 10 Americans support bans on texting while driving and 6 out of 10 support bans on all phone use.

But in the same poll, 66 percent said they would answer the phone and talk while driving. Twenty-six percent admit to placing calls on at least some driving trips.

When pollsters asked people why they pick up the phone, respondents cited what the NHTSA calls “personal reasons.” The caller was someone close to them, or the call was “important” or work-related.

McClendon said he gets it. He acknowledged that he has texted in the car himself. But, he said, he thinks the time is right to nudge people toward safer driving habits.

“This is something the people want,” he said.

Star Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560.
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