Fielding deserves lawmakers' support

It would be tempting to think of it as a uniquely American problem, but it’s a danger anywhere the two technologies collide — or more importantly, cause other things to collide — cellphones and automobiles. A recent report by BBC online highlighted the efforts of British law enforcement to curb the tragedy caused by inattentive driving.

As the report states, “A lorry (truck) driver was caught brushing his teeth and a car driver was pulled over for shaving with a razor and a water bottle, during a police crackdown. A five-day operation across Hampshire and the Thames Valley resulted in 198 motorists being prosecuted using footage filmed from an unmarked lorry.”

The report goes on to say that the majority of drivers were caught texting and driving. They received average fines equal to $160 U.S. and three points on their licenses. We think the fines for this kind of thing should be steeper. We’re not alone.

As recently reported by Arkansas News Bureau, Rep. David Fielding, D-Magnolia, said he intends to meet with law enforcement officers, prosecutors and lawmakers to discuss possibly increasing the severity of Arkansas’ penalty for texting and driving. Fielding planned to ask the Senate Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs and the House Committee on Public Transportation on Wednesday to approve his request to study the issue, including whether the 2009 law is adequately being enforced or whether police should be more aggressive in enforcement.

From all indications, enforcement is lacking. Everyone of us has probably seen someone distractedly yapping or texting while steering with their elbows. Angela Hines, spokeswoman for Springdale-based, created in 2011 to educate the public and law enforcement on the dangers of texting and driving, was also present at the joint committee meeting. She told lawmakers that 18 citations for the offense have been written since Arkansas’ law took effect in October 2009.

According to the ANB report, six people appeared in Little Rock Traffic Court in 2011 with citations for texting and driving, a court clerk said Tuesday. Two have appeared so far this year.

Bill Sadler, spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, said state troopers have issued 185 warnings to drivers for texting and driving since the law took effect. He said he did not know how many citations had been issued.

In a world where cellphones and tablets are ubiquitous, these numbers seem awfully low. This then suggests a need for two adjustments: first, police need to more aggressively enforce the existing law; second, as Fielding suggests, the penalties need to be sufficiently harsh as to actually foster deterrence.

Fielding said he would like to see the penalty for texting and driving “changed to something comparable to a DWI… I mean the only way you can really get punished for texting is if you actually kill someone.”

It shouldn’t come to that. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, more than 3,000 people were killed in 2011 due to distracted driving. Another 387,000 were injured. They also state that crashes are 23 times more likely if a driver is texting (emailing, checking Facebook, surfing the web…) while driving.

According to research performed by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, a quarter of U.S. teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. Further, 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving.

All of these facts support Fielding’s efforts. Nothing is so important that we have the right to put other motorists, passengers, pedestrians, and property at more than 20 times the risk of being harmed. If the text exchange is all that important, then it’s important enough to pull over before reading or responding. We hope lawmakers will give the matter strong consideration.