AP Survey: Ala. lawmakers want driver texting ban

Published 2:27 pm Thursday, January 29, 2009

MONTGOMERY — State Rep. Jim McClendon can’t think of a worse distraction for a driver trying to control a vehicle at 70 mph on a crowded interstate highway than trying to type a text message on a cell phone at the same time.

Most members of the Alabama Legislature agree.

In an Associated Press survey of lawmakers, 81 percent of House members responding said they would support a ban on text messaging while driving, while just 1 percent were opposed and 18 percent said they were undecided. In the Senate, 77 percent of respondents said they would support the bill, while 10 percent were opposed and 13 percent undecided.

Responding to the survey were 70 percent of House members and 94 percent of senators as the Legislature prepares to open its regular session Tuesday.

“If you’re going to text message, you’ve got to take your eyes off the road and one or both hands off the steering wheel,” said McClendon, R-Springville. “It’s the worst form of distraction there is.”

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, seven states — California, Alaska, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington — and the District of Columbia ban sending text messages while driving. In Louisiana and Washington, sending text messaging is only a secondary traffic violation, which means a driver must be stopped for breaking a different traffic law before he or she can be given a ticket for text messaging.

At least nine other states ban text messaging for some teenage or novice drivers.

McClendon, a retired St. Clair County optometrist, is introducing a bill that would make it illegal to send a text message while operating a vehicle. For the first offense, the driver would receive a $25 fine, and it would go to $50 for the second offense and $75 for the third. While the fine is not high, a driver would be assessed points against his driving record and could have his driver’s license suspended after a fourth violation.

McClendon is chairman of the Alabama Safety Coordinating Committee and frequently introduces bills aimed at improving highway safety.

He said he hopes this bill fares better than a measure he introduced two years ago that would have made it a violation for people under 18 to drive and use a cell phone at the same time. That bill died after being debated for several hours on the House floor, with some lawmakers complaining it should apply to everybody and not just teenagers.

McClendon said it’s crazy to allow drivers to type messages into their cell phones when they should be concentrating on the road.

“If they want to run off the road and tear up their own cars, that’s one thing. But they may cross the median and hit your family or mine,” McClendon said.

The cell phone industry does not oppose legislation in Alabama or other states to make it illegal to send text messages and drive at the same time, said Hood Harris, a spokesman for AT&T in Alabama.

“It’s obviously a distraction, one of many distractions you can have while driving and we encourage safe driving without distractions,” Harris said.

The proposed legislation is supported by officials at the Alabama Traffic Safety Center at the University of Montevallo, director Marty Spellicy said.

“It’s a distraction and split-second distractions can make the difference between life and death in driving situations,” Spellicy said.

State Rep. Mike Ball, R-Huntsville, a retired state trooper, said text messaging is one of many things drivers can do that can draw their attention from the road.

“Putting on lipstick, reading books, all of that stuff is a distraction. Anything that distracts you is certainly dangerous,” Ball said.

But Ball said he is concerned about how police officers would enforce the proposed law. He said it’s hard to look in a window and see if the driver is typing a message on a cell phone.

“You drive down the road and you can see if they are wearing seat belts. But how would you know if someone is text messaging? It might be unenforceable,” Ball said.

McClendon said he doesn’t think it will be any harder than determining if a driver is drinking a beer, which is illegal while driving.