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Texting While Driving Bill Passes Oklahoma Senate

10-Apr-2015

Forty four states have laws that specifically ban texting while driving. Oklahoma is not one of them. For the last several years, state legislators have struck down proposed legislation to ban texting while driving. This year, several new texting while driving bills have been proposed, and at least one of those is one step closer to becoming law.

In the past, critics of new laws against texting have said that the existing laws against distracted driving were enough to penalize texting while driving. However, supporters of stronger legislation have said that since law enforcement officers could not issue a citation for distracted driving unless the driver caused an accident, the law was a punitive measure rather than a preventative one.

Rep. Terry O'Donnell sponsored House Bill 1965 which, if passed, would become Oklahoma's first law aimed specifically at texting while driving. A first offense would result in a $250 fine, with subsequent offenses bringing a $500 fine. However, HB 1965 allowed texting while driving to remain a secondary offense, meaning that a person could not receive a ticket for texting while driving unless he or she committed some other traffic offense as well. Critics of past bills have said that texting while driving would be too hard for law officers to enforce as a primary offense. Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph disagreed, saying, "We see it every day, people not paying attention. That stuff is so dangerous. We cannot emphasize enough just how important it is that you just keep your eyes on the roadway.”

After OHP Trooper Nicholas Dees was killed and his partner Keith Burch was injured when the pair were struck by a texting driver, in February, HB 1965 was renamed "The Trooper Nicholas Dees and Trooper Keith Burch Act of 2015." Later that month, the bill passed a House Committee and went on for consideration in the Senate.

Now, Oklahoma Senators have passed HB 1965 by a vote of 38-6. The bill they passed, however, is amended from the initial proposal sent to them in a very significant way. The amended bill would make texting while driving a primary offense, rather than a secondary one.

If the bill were to pass in its original form, law enforcement officers would not be able to issue a citation for texting while driving unless they saw other traffic violations--running stop signs, weaving erratically, failure to yield, etc. With texting while driving as a primary offense, an officer could conduct a traffic stop and issue a ticket to anyone he or she saw texting while driving, regardless of whether or not that driver's ability to operate a vehicle while texting seemed compromised.

Senator Ervin Yen is responsible for introducing the amendment, which was approved by a vote of 23-20. He said that law enforcement officers who have spoken to him about the bill echo Trooper Randolph's statement that texting drivers are easy to spot.  

And let's be honest. It is not hard to tell if someone is texting while driving. We see it every morning as we commute; we see it every weekend as we run errands. Whether or not a law specifically banning texting while driving will have any impact on distracted driving accidents remains to be seen, but it is clear that texting while driving is a dangerous form of distraction.

The amended HB 1965 will now return to the House for consideration.



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