For the first time in years, a texting while driving bill is making moves. It passed committee Thursday, but one senator says the law would do more harm than good.
"Just over seven years ago, December 21st, 2006, my daughter made a choice to play with a cell phone while she was driving," says Gina Collins. While using that cell phone, Collins' 19-year-old daughter, Brittanie Montgomery, wrecked her car and lost her life. Ever since, Collins has been pushing for laws against using cell phones while driving. "It has been a constant, uphill battle with our government," she says.
The passing of Senator Ron Sharp's SB 442 through committee was a small victory. "Some 70-plus percent of Oklahomans believe that this should be addressed," says Sen. Sharp, (R)- Shawnee.
Only one senator voted against it... "If I vote for this bill, what I'm voting for is putting more of our drivers in danger," says Sen. Ralph Shortey, (R)- Oklahoma City. Sen. Shortey says he's against texting while driving, but he says laws like this in other states have either not helped at all or caused a sharp increase in deaths. "This law is not going to cause people to stop texting. It's going to cause them to text more dangerously. Right now, if you can say it this way, people are kind of texting responsibly," says Sen. Shortey.
But, Sen. Sharp disagrees. He says, once there's an enforceable law in place, not texting while driving will become a learned behavior that drivers will obey, like when they learned to wear seatbelts.
But, Sen. Shortey says this proposed law is not enforceable unless a financial incentive is added in. "If you give a law enforcement officer an incentive to increase enforcement, they will. And, right now, distracted driving is not worth their time What the legislature did a long time ago is-- they created a property seizure and forfeiture provision for drug trafficking. Before that, there was no enforcement for drug trafficking because it was costly and expensive for the police departments to do. Now, every single police department in the state has a drug task force, because if they catch you trafficking drugs, they can seize your property. They can use the proceeds of that property to help build their coffers up basically. So, if you give them a financial incentive, they're going to enforce the laws more. Right now, there's no incentive for them to enforce texting and driving, other than to make the state safer, but if that were the only incentive, why aren't they doing it now? They need more incentive," says Sen. Shortey.
"I have not found that to be the case," says Sen. Sharp. "The Highway Patrol that I have discussed this with are more than willing to enforce this. The incentive is just as any other statute. What is the incentive to pull someone over for a seatbelt violation? Or for running a stop sign?" he says.
Collins says the incentive for everyone should simply be... life. "Who is going to take the time to pick up their phone, play with it and hit my other child and leave me with no children?" asks Gina. "Life is so precious. Why do you want to end it so fast by using a cell phone while you're driving? Just put it away."
Sen. Shortey also says this law is redundant-- noting that we already have a distracted driving law. "Over the last ten years, cell phone usage has increased over 200-percent, but what has not increased is the number of accidents that occur on our roads. The amount of deaths have actually decreased," he says, pointing to a chart from the U.S. Census that shows vehicle deaths from 1990 to 2009.
"That's old data. What they're basing their opinion on is not relevant. It is not new," says Collins. "Effective today, there are 42 states that have a no texting while driving law," she says, showing that Oklahoma is behind the curve.
There's also another issue-- personal property. "When you start considering how you're going to defend yourself if you get a ticket, and you want to say, 'Well, I wasn't texting while I was driving'--- How do you defend that? The only way to do that is to allow the court access to your records and your personal cell phone information, which could have some very personal information, and if you turn that stuff over to the court, it's automatically up for everybody to see," says Sen. Shortey.
"I'm sorry, but if you choose to pick up a phone and hit me because you're texting while driving, your civil liberties have ended and mine have begun," Collins responds.
"This is a 'feel-good measure.' I'm not going to just put my name on something just because I think it's going to feel good for me to do it. I'm not in the habit of standing up against most of the Oklahoman's will, but it is my job to make sure we do it responsibly. It's my job to make sure that we've thought through the issue, and that it doesn't make the situation worse," says Sen. Shortey.
Sen. Sharp has agreed to sit down with the other senators next week and consider some amendments, including the cost of the fine-- which Sen. Sharp originally wanted set at "up to $500," as well as the personal property issue, possibly making all distracted driving a primary offense, and a possible incentive for law enforcement. Then, the bill will head to the Senate.
If Collins could have it her way, there would be an all-out ban on cell phone use in vehicles, period. "No phones, no Bluetooth," she says. "Not your sync, not your Siri, nor your OnStar. Hands-free is not any safer than using a cell phone. If you try to watch a TV show and you try to talk on your phone at the same time, what do you end up listening to? Because you're not going to listen to both. There's nothing that you need on a cell phone while you're driving," she says.
Another bill, SB 1601, targeting cell phone use in cars also moves to the full Senate. It would ban drivers from using cell phones in school zones. It would not apply to people using hands-free devices, or those making specifically-listed emergency calls. The proposed fines range from $250 - $500. Arkansas and Texas have similar laws.