Let’s curb ‘a menace to society;’ Ban texting at the wheel in Ohio

Texting kills.

That stark and chilling headline screamed out at readers from the front page of last Sunday’s Vindicator. The headline accompanied our lead story about Tina Yanssens’ crusade to ban texting while driving in Ohio after a woman who admitted text-messaging while operating her motor vehicle ran over Yanssens’ father three months ago in Struthers.

Here is the account of Yanssens, daughter of 55-year-old victim Dave Muslovski who had owned Iron City Wood Products in Campbell and was out for a healthy morning walk June 17:

“She didn’t hit him, she ran over him. She left tire tracks up his right leg, across his pelvis and up his right arm. He didn’t stand a chance because she fractured his pelvis, pulverized multiple major branches of his right femoral artery, and bruised over 25 percent of his liver.”

Muslovski died later that afternoon.

And Muslovski is not alone.

At least 6,000 Americans are dying each year because of distracted driving, and text-messaging while operating a motor vehicle ranks as the biggest distraction, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in recent testimony to Congress in support of a federal measure to rein in the killer. Indeed LaHood called texting while driving “a menace to society.”

Today we lend a robust and public voice of support to Tina Janssens’ call for a taut and strictly enforced ban on texting while driving in the Buckeye State.

Popular support for ban

Yanssens and talk-show diva Oprah Winfrey are not alone in their passionate quest. As of Saturday morning, 398,788 drivers had endorsed Winfrey’s pledge to make their car a “no-phone zone.”

Closer to home, a Quinnipiac University Poll released last week revealed that Ohioans by a margin of 75 percent to 23 percent favor a ban on the use of handheld cell phones by drivers.

The time to act is now. The popularity of cell-phone use and texting continues to grow. As of December 2009, 83 percent of adults owned a cell phone, an 18 percent increase from five years ago, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And of those people, Pew found 28 percent casually admit they sometimes don’t drive as safely as they should. As the popularity of cell phones and texting rises, so, too, will the senseless carnage that robbed Janssens of her father and the Mahoning Valley of a proud business owner.

Opponents of the bill argue that Ohio law already bans operating a vehicle “without being in reasonable control of the vehicle.” They say drivers do many things that are distracting and that singling out texting is unfair and myopic.

Such reasoning fails to take into account the sweeping popularity of cell phones and the increasingly commonplace tendency for Americans and Ohioans to irresponsibly use them. When a driver’s attention and eyes shift from the road to the keypad — even for a split second — an invitation to disaster looms.

Others, such as those who fought mandatory seat-belt laws for years, argue that banning cell-phone use in motor vehicles infringes upon constitutional liberties. Our personal liberties, of course, always must take a back seat when they encroach upon the life, liberties, and pursuit of happiness of others.

Courses of action

Over the past two years, initiatives to curb or ban cell-phone use and texting while driving have accelerated in city council chambers, in Statehouses and in the halls of Congress.

In Ohio, for example, a dozen progressive-minded communities have not waited for state or federal action. Such jurisdiction-specific crackdowns, however, vary widely in their definitions, applications and penalties. Instead of a patchwork of potentially confusing and unequal local regulations, Ohio would be best served with one strong, uniform and rigidly enforced law statewide.

The Ohio House last spring approved a bill that could fine Ohio motorists who text behind the wheel up to $150. The bill, which passed with bipartisan support, would make it a misdemeanor to read, write or send text messages while behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. While not as tough as many would like, it does represent a start.

The Ohio Senate is considering its companion— Senate Bill 164 — but like so many other critical issues before the Legislature, inaction has been the watchword of the year. It has been stalled in committee for more than a year.

Cue the federal government. Senate Bill 1938 for which LaHood testified, targets the recalcitrant 20 states — including Ohio and Pennsylvania — that do not have statewide regulations on car cell-phone use. Even though the federal government doesn’t have the power to ban the activities nationwide — driving rules are powers constitutionally ceded to states — the bill attempts to bribe states into passing strong anti-texting laws by offering them money if they do and withholding funding if they don’t.

If that’s what it takes, so be it. But we would much prefer that Ohio would join the majority of other forward-moving states by acting on its own in the name of public safety for all motorists and all pedestrians who today have unwittingly become unsuspecting human bull’s-eyes for drivers distracted by cell phones.

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