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State bill seeks to ban text messages while driving

MONTGOMERY — An Alabama legislative committee is ready to ban drivers from text messaging while driving, but still allow them to talk on hand-held cell phones.

The House Public Safety Committee on Thursday unanimously approved a bill to prohibit writing, sending or reading text messages while behind the wheel. The bill would fine drivers $25 for a first violation $50 for a second violation and $75 for each one after that.

The committee voted 5-3 to kill a companion bill that would have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, but would permit handsfree phones.

The sponsor of both bills, Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, said he was pleased to get one approved and believes it would save lives by eliminating one distraction for drivers.

“I see people text messaging all the time while going down the road,” he said.

The bill’s next stop is the Alabama House, where it could come to a vote as early as next week.

An Associated Press survey of legislators last month found the bill was supported by 81 percent of the House and 77 percent of the Senate. The survey was answered by 70 percent of the representatives and 94 percent of the senators responding.

A retired state trooper, Rep. Mike Ball, R-Huntsville, said the bill would be hard to enforce because most drivers hold their phones below window level to text message and could drop their phones if they saw an officer. But he said most Alabama drivers will change their driving habits if a law passes. He cited statistics showing that seat belt use went up in Alabama once the Legislature made the belts mandatory.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, text messaging while driving is banned in Alaska, Connecticut, California, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington and the District of Columbia. Nine other states ban it for novice or teenage drivers.

Association spokesman Jonathan Adkins said it’s a popular idea, but there has been no research yet from the first seven states to show whether it has reduced traffic accidents. He said the association recommends it be used for teenage drivers as part of a graduated driver’s license.

Jason Robinson, state director for the National Safety Council, supported both of McClendon’s bills.

Robinson cited a study by the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis that showed cell phones contribute to 6 percent of all traffic accidents nationwide.

Legislators opposed to the cell phone bill said motorists can keep their eyes on the road while talking on the phone, but not while text messaging.

Voting against the cell phone bill were Ball; Alan Baker, R-Brewton; Mike Curtis, D-Florence; Benjamin Lewis, R-Dothan; and Randy Wood, R-Anniston.

Voting for it were: Owen Drake, R-Leeds; Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville; and Henry White, D-Athens.