Senators Propose Law Banning Texting While Driving

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Mary Landrieu (D-L.A.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) unveiled new legislation that will ban anyone from texting on a cell phone or other personal electronic device while operating a moving vehicle.

This legislation comes in the wake of a rash of mass transit accidents caused by distracted operators and a study by Virginia Tech researchers yesterday that revealed that drivers are 23 times more likely to get into an accident when texting on their phones. Another study, published in June by Car and Driver Magazine, indicated that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving intoxicated.

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The senators’ bill—known as the Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act (“ALERT Drivers” Act)—would require states to bar the sending of text or email messages while operating a car or truck, or else risk losing federal highway funds. Within six months of the bill’s passage, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will establish minimum penalties that must be contained within the state law. States then have two years to pass compliant bans or else risk losing 25% of their annual federal highway finding per year that they fail to comply with the law.  States that comply after the two-year deadline can retroactively recover lost highway funds.

“Studies have shown over and over that texting while driving is dangerous and it’s time to take action to prevent the tragic accidents that result from this activity,” said Schumer. “We have seen too many lives ruined due to drivers recklessly using their cell phones. With this new legislation, drivers will finally be held responsible for dangerous behavior that puts the public at risk.”

“iPhones, Sidekicks and Blackberries are ingenious, indispensable devices. But while they make our lives so much easier, they make driving that much harder,” said Menendez. “Texting while driving should be illegal on every road, every railway, in every state. Anything we can do at every level of government to raise awareness and stop texting while driving will save lives – particularly the lives of those new drivers who are accustomed to texting anywhere, anytime. They are at risk, and they put our families at risk.”

“This legislation addresses a growing problem on our nation’s highways: distracted drivers,” Sen. Landrieu said. “Studies show that texting while driving increases the chances of a high-speed collision and has been found to be even more dangerous than driving drunk. This activity places millions of drivers at an unnecessary risk of potentially deadly accidents.  By enforcing a minimum standard for states, Congress can ensure that both interstate commerce and private in-state travel remains as safe as possible, while allowing states to enact stricter standards if they choose. Fourteen states, including Louisiana, have already passed laws addressing this issue – it is time for the other 36 states to follow suit.”

“Research shows that texting while driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. North Carolina wisely passed a law in June preventing drivers from texting or e-mailing. If every state chose to enact similar laws, it would keep motorists, passengers and the public safer on our roads across the country,” Sen. Hagan said.

Americans have been using cell phones and other electronic devices to send text messages and emails with increasing frequency in recent years. According to the New York Times, over 110 billion text messages were sent in the United States in the month of December 2008 alone, a tenfold increase over just three years.

A 2008 study by Nationwide Insurance found that 20% of American drivers send text messages while driving.  And while texting and e-mails are extremely valuable to individuals throughout the country, these services are incredibly risky when used by a motor vehicle operator. Recently there have also been major mass transit accidents in Massachusetts and California that were caused by distracted operators who were texting on their cell phones while operating the vehicles. There were 25 deaths as a result of these accidents alone.

In a study released yesterday, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found operators of motor vehicles had a collision risk 23 times greater when they were texting than when they were not texting. Another study by the University of Utah found that college students using a driving simulator were eight times more likely to have an accident when texting.

Recently, the American Medical Association identified texting while driving as a public health risk and cited a study that found that texting while driving causes a 400% increase in time spent with eyes off the road. However, texting doesn’t just affect car operators; it affects train conductors and bus drivers as well.

In September 2008, the worst train crash in 15 years took place in Los Angeles, California when a train conductor receiving and sending text messages went through a red light and collided with a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring 135. In May 2009, a MBTA trolley in Boston ran a red light and crashed into another trolley. The conductor admitted to texting when the accident took place. Forty-nine people were injured. Earlier this year, a San Antonio bus driver was caught on video driving through rush hour traffic while texting on his cell phone. The bus later crashed into an SUV.

The problem of texting while driving has been recognized across the country.  Currently, fourteen states and the District of Columbia ban all drivers from texting while operating motor vehicles.  In addition, eleven other states have a modified ban on texting while driving. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), part of the DOT,  issued an emergency order in October 2008 to restrict on-duty railroad operating employees from using cell phones and other electronic devices.

The decision to issue the order came after a Los Angeles crash that killed 25 people, which raised serious concerns within FRA and DOT over the safety of rail transportation when electronic devices were used by conductors. But these rules do not reach far enough since they only apply to heavy-rail operators.

The bill introduced today would apply to anyone operating a personal car, truck, bus and most other mass transit systems, including light rail. The legislation would not apply to individuals using mobile devices while their vehicle is stopped, nor would it apply to passengers.


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