Lawmaker wants stiffer penalties for texting and driving


LITTLE ROCK — A southern Arkansas lawmaker who wants harsher penalties for people convicted of texting and driving appears to have support among fellow legislators, but some raised questions Tuesday about enforcement of the law itself.

Rep. David Fielding, D-Magnolia, has drafted a bill that would double the fine for first-offense texting and driving to up to $200 and suspend an offender’s driving privileges for 30 days.

A second offense would raise the fine to $300 and the possible suspension of driver’s licenses up to 90 days, and a third offense would raise the fine to $500, with up to 1 year’s suspension of driver’s license.

“We want to make you think twice before you pick up that phone to text someone,” Fielding said Tuesday during a joint meeting of the Senate Interim Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs and the House Interim Committee on Public Transportation.

“I think texting and driving is just as serious and just as dangerous as drinking and driving,” Fielding said. “If this bill can save one life … this is a good bill. I want this to be a deterrent, a sufficient deterrent.”

Fielding said the proposal would “add teeth” to Act 191 of 2009, which prohibits drivers in Arkansas from texting or sending e-mail from their handheld devices while driving. That legislation is referred to as “Paul’s Law,” after Paul Davidson of Jonesboro. The father of three was killed in a head-on crash with a driver who was typing a text message.

Several lawmakers said they liked the idea of raising the penalties for texting and driving, but some questioned how the current law can be enforced.

“How do you know whether a person is simply looking at his phone or texting?” asked Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs.

Sample said he has been told by the state Department of Education that some teens can “text with their thumb and their hand in their pocket.”

“So if an officer is going to be riding down the road, how do you know if they’re not texting, or if they are texting? How would you be able to …. show probable cause to pull that driver over?” Sample asked.

Ronnie Burk, chief of the Arkansas Highway Police, said enforcing the law is difficult because often the officer can’t tell if the person is simply using their phone or texting.

Burk said the federal law, which prohibits drivers of commercial vehicles from holding a cell phone at all, is better.

“It’s extremely difficult for law enforcement to determine whether someone is texting, whether they’re sending something with the Internet, and that is why I think … the feds got it right,” Burks said.

David Foster with the state Department of Finance and Administration, said 86 drivers were issued citations in 2010 for texting and driving. In 2011, 57 were issued citations and so far this year 180 citations have been issued.

“I agree with the concept completely, but I’m trying to get at how hard it is going to be to manage,” said Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith. “I’m not sure how to get over that hurdle, and maybe with law enforcement’s help we can figure out a way we can identify, but there’s a lot of grey there.”

Gill Rogers, an attorney for the Bureau of Legislative Research, told lawmakers that current law prohibits anyone under 18 years old from using a cell phone, for any reason, while driving. Drivers 18-21 must use hand-free attachments while talking on their cellphones behind the wheel.

Fielding said later he appreciates input from lawmakers.

“There will probably be some tweaks to this,” he said. “I’m open to ideas. This is just a draft with the goal of getting a good deterrent to keep someone from texting (while driving). I think we’ve got to have something.”