Mississippi Senate passed bill to make texting while driving illegal

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, March 11, 2015

PHONES AWAY: Motor vehicles driving down West Canal Street. Starting July 1, motorists who text while drive could be fined $25 if Gov. Phil Bryant signs the bill into law. Photo by Ashley Collins.

PHONES AWAY: Motor vehicles driving down West Canal Street. Starting July 1, motorists who text while drive could be fined $25 if Gov. Phil Bryant signs the bill into law. Photo by Ashley Collins.

Monday, the Mississippi Senate passed a bill to ban texting while driving. While some lawmakers voted against it, the bill passed with an overwhelming majority, District 47 State Sen. Tony Smith, R, said.

House Bill 389, written by District 64 State Sen. Bill Denny, R, is an “act to prohibit any person from operating a motor vehicle on a highway while using a hand-held wireless communication device.”

The bill aims to ban drivers from composing, sending or receiving texts, emails or social media messages, but making and receiving calls are legal, Smith said.

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Before making the decision, Smith said lawmakers debated on whether or not the bill would be effective.

“I voted for it. I tell my children all the time they shouldn’t be texting and driving,” Smith said. “I will say this, we do already have careless driving laws in place, which are similar to this bill.”

However, he said this bill gives law enforcement more authority to stop someone if they’re seen texting while driving.

“I’m not 100 percent sure if the bill will be enforceable but in the grand scheme of things, this law could make highways safer,” he said.

Mississippi Highway Patrol’s Director of Public Relations Lt. Johnny Poulos said distracted driving is one of the main issues on the roadways.

“We would hope anything put in place would help save lives,” Poulos said. “We deal with a lot of distracted driving cases, which is anything that takes someone’s eyes off the road while driving. Texting falls under that category.”

The bill awaits a signature from Gov. Phil Bryant. Smith said the governor is expected to sign the bill into law, unless further debates ensue. If he signs the bill, it would go into effect July 1.

“Until he does, our legal department will look at the bill and see how we’re going to enforce the law if it is signed,” Poulos said. “Once we get a good handle on how to proceed, we’re going to have to establish good communication lines between law enforcement and motorists so they understand what’s going on.”

In 2012, distracted driving caused 18 percent of the fatal car crashes in the U.S. Eleven percent of drivers aged 18 to 20 involved in a car crash, admitted to texting while driving, according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

District 40 State Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R, along with two other senators, support the idea of a bill that bans texting while driving but voted against this bill.

“If we want to truly deter texting and driving, the law should provide for enhanced penalty for anyone of any age if it can be proven that the one causing an accident was texting while driving,” she said.

Under the current bill, Hill said the initial fine for texting while driving is only $25, which will go up to $100 on July 1, 2016.

“Second of all, the bill as written gives probable cause for an officer to pull someone over and issue a citation if one has a cell phone in his hand,” she said. “Even the most diligent officer would have to guess most of the time whether the person was answering, calling or texting.”

She also said it’s already illegal for a teenager to use a cellular device in a car, unless in an emergency, in the state of Mississippi. Under the bill, if a teenager gets into a car accident as a result of texting while driving, it’s only a misdemeanor.

“Maybe this should have been revisited and made a felony if an accident was caused,” she said.

If the law is enacted, Mississippi will become the 45th state to ban texting while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.