Texting and handheld phones are a hazard on the highway, and there are bodies to prove it

Texting and handheld phones are a hazard on the highway, and there are bodies to prove it

It is not an accident when a driv- er makes a conscious decision to pay attention to something other than the road, and that decision leads to another person’s death.

We’d say it’s reckless to ignore what a 3,000- pound missile is doing for three or four seconds as it hurtles down the road at 50 or 60 or 70 mph. But legally, we’re losing that argument, as prosecutors and jurors seem to be erring on the side of viewing it as only negligent when a driver pays more attention to returning a text message than to other cars, pedestrians or bicycles on the road. It doesn’t seem to matter even when the inattention leads to the maiming or death of an innocent person.

The difference between negligence and recklessness is significant, because the former, at least in Ohio, is grounds for a misdemeanor conviction in a fatal accident; the latter would rise to a felony.

The discussion of culpability and punishment aside, the fact is that no one thinks that he or she is going to be the texter or cell-phone talker who actually kills someone. And that’s why it is important for states to limit some types of electronic communication behind the wheel and issue an outright ban on others.

NTSB steps in

This week, the National Transportation Safety Board declared that texting, emailing or chatting while driving is too dangerous to be allowed anywhere in the United States. That strikes us as too ambitious a stance, at least as it applies to hands-free communication, which logically should be able to be done with little more distraction than talking to a person in the passenger seat.

Handheld phones, however, take the distraction to another level, and handheld devices used for text messages have the potential for taking a driver’s eyes off the road for deadly amounts of time.

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. Last year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood called texting while driving “a menace to society” and called for federal action to rein it in.

Ohio lags behind most states

The Associated Press reports that 35 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, while nine states and Washington, D.C., bar handheld cellphone use. Thirty states ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers. But enforcement is generally not a high priority, and no states ban the use of hands-free devices for all drivers. Pennsylvania is the latest state to ban texting while driving. The Ohio House passed a ban bill last year, but it died for lack of action in the Senate. Similar legislation has been reintroduced in this session of the General Assembly.

Banning phone use of any kind for inexperienced drivers should be a law that any parent who has or anticipates having driving-age children should welcome. Accident rates for learning drivers have always been high.

The AP reported that immediate impetus for the NTSB’s recommendation was last year’s deadly pileup near Gray Summit, Mo., involving a 19-year-old pickup driver.

The board said the initial collision was caused by the teen’s inattention while texting a friend about events of the previous night. The pickup, traveling 55 mph, hit the back of a tractor truck that had slowed for highway construction. The pickup was rear-ended by a school bus, and a second school bus rammed into the back of the first bus. The pickup driver and a 15-year-old student on one of the buses were killed. Thirty-eight other people were injured.

Avoidable tragedy

Locally, a driver who was 19 when she ran down a pedestrian in Springfield Township in June 2010 while texting is awaiting sentencing after pleading no contest to a charge of vehicular homicide. She could face six months in jail, years on probation and without driving privileges and a civil suit. How much better it would have been for everyone involved if more had been done in Ohio to discourage texting and driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported earlier this year that pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., produced significant reductions in distracted driving by combining stepped-up ticketing with high-profile public education campaigns.

Before and after each enforcement wave, NHTSA researchers observed cellphone use by drivers and conducted surveys at drivers’ license offices in the two cities. They found that in Syracuse, handheld cellphone use and texting declined by a third. In Hartford, there was a 57 percent drop in handheld phone use, and texting behind the wheel dropped by nearly three-quarters.

Ohio has an aggressive “click it or ticket” campaign, which is aimed at encouraging drivers or passengers to protect themselves with seat belts. Shouldn’t even greater priority be given to protecting innocent bystanders from dangerous drivers who text behind the wheel?

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