Texting ban bill hanging by thread in Miss.

Published 11:05 pm Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mississippi’s legislative effort to restrict text-messaging by new teen drivers may be in jeopardy after an attempt to send the bill to the governor fell short by one vote.

Under the bill, a new driver caught texting behind the wheel could face a misdemeanor charge and a fine of up to $500. If there’s an accident when someone is texting while driving, the fine would be up to $1,000.

The bill also would add six months to the minimum age for teenagers to get their driver’s licenses, a proposal that’s been backed by the Senate for the past several years. And, it includes a provision that a teen who drops out of school could lose his driver’s license.

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Momentum to pass the bill sputtered Tuesday after a proposal from Sen. Briggs Hopson III, who wanted to add language that would allow teens with a learner’s permit to drive classmates to school functions if they get parental consent.

Under current law, a parent or guardian has to be in the car with a teen driver who has a learner’s permit. But Hopson’s proposal would allow those teens to ride without a guardian if they’re transporting other young people to events such as football practice.

Hopson, a Republican from Vicksburg, said the change could make the difference between students being involved in extracurricular activities or joining gangs.

“We’re going to lose some kids to the streets because their parents can’t take them to these events,” Hopson said.

Hopson made a motion to send the bill back for more negotiations with the House, which had passed the measure earlier this month. When that failed, the Senate voted 29-20 in favor of sending the bill to Gov. Haley Barbour’s desk.

The bill needed 30 votes in favor because it required a three-fifths majority since it included language about fees.

The bill was held for more debate, giving supporters more time to win additional votes for the measure.

Senate Judiciary B Chairman Gray Tollison, a Democrat from Oxford, said a change in Mississippi’s law is needed because the state has one of the highest teen driver death rates in the nation.

“This is sending a message to the parents and the teens: Let’s back off the texting when you’re learning to drive,” Tollison said.

The texting ban would apply only to drivers with learner’s permits and intermediate licenses, which restrict the hours for unsupervised driving.

Under current Mississippi law, a driver can get a learner’s permit at 15. After six months with no accidents or tickets, the person can move to an intermediate license. Six months later with a clean record and a minimum age of 16, a person can get a license to drive alone.

The bill wouldn’t change the minimum age for a learner’s permit. But it would move the minimum age for an intermediate license to 16. And a full-fledged license could be obtained six months later.

The intermediate license allows unsupervised driving from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The bill would extend those hours to 11:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

The bill is Senate Bill 2280.