Texting while driving may soon be illegal in Kentucky, if legislation moving in the 2010 General Assembly becomes law. Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh watched the bill clear its first major hurdle.
Late last year, Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order banning state workers from texting while driving government vehicles. Beshear says distracted driving annually claims more than 200 lives in Kentucky, and his Eyes on the Road initiative can save lives.
“State government can and should continue to demonstrate leadership in reducing avoidable highway dangers,” said Beshear. “The risks are too high and the statistics are too staggering for the Commonwealth of Kentucky to remain ambivalent about this issue any longer.”
But Beshear’s order applies only to state workers. That’s not the case with legislation sponsored by former House Speaker Jody Richards (pictured). Richards’ bill bans texting by all drivers, but drivers over age 18 will still be able to use their cell phones. As Richards outlined the bill for the House Transportation committee, the age restriction on cell phone use drew this response from Rep. John Arnold of Sturgis.
“The 18 years of age – under 18, you can’t do it, over 18 you can do it?” asked Arnold.
“Yep,” replied Richards.
“Well, that’s crazy as hell!” exclaimed Arnold. “Young people are a lot more dexterous than you and me!”
But Richards figures that’s the only way he can make the bill palatable enough for passage.
“There may be some things that eventually you would want to change,” said Richards. “But at this point, I think to get the bill in shape that we can pass it, we have to leave the ability to make a telephone call.”
The bill includes fines of $20 to $100 for texting while driving, but the fines won’t kick in until 2011. Richards knows the law may be hard to enforce, but says at least 18 other states and the District of Columbia have approved similar laws.
“They’ve found ways to enforce it,” said Richards. “And they’ve found that it’s gonna save lives. We had 24 teenagers killed in Kentucky last year, with distracted driving.”
Richards’ bill drew a positive response from Rep. Jimmie Lee of Elizabethtown, who says students at John Hardin High School gathered 2,300 names on a petition favoring a ban on texting while driving. And Lee shared some comments from student Cary Hughes.
“There are many other distractions while driving,” read Lee. “For example, brushing your hair, eating or putting on makeup. But none of these are as dangerous as texting while driving. You cannot stop people from making wrong choices, but you can try to prevent them. And the only way to do this is to pass this law.”
Other lawmakers questioned why drivers won’t be allowed to text while sitting still in traffic jams and at construction sites. Others didn’t like the idea of exempting police officers when they’re on official duty. But in the end, the bill easily cleared the committee 18-7. Among opponents was Rep. Tim Couch of Hyden.
“I think we should probably look at an amendment to amend the bill to outlaw eating, looking at your maps, using your radio, rolling your windows down, or locking your doors,” said Couch. “Thank you.”
The bill now moves to the House floor. Before the committee adjourned, Louisville Rep. Tom Burch tried to revive a measure he’s offered in previous sessions. It would ban all cell phone use while driving, not just texting. Committee chair Hubert Collins warned Burch the bill’s chances were slim to none, and “slim just left town.” Sure enough, the measure failed for lack of votes.