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November 30, 2013

Texting ban has public support despite House opposition

STILLWATER, Okla. — Constituents are concerned more deaths may happen from texting and driving before the Oklahoma legislature passes a bill prohibiting it.

The distracted driving law in Oklahoma allows law enforcement to cite a person only if they’ve caused an accident, but some legislators say this isn’t good enough.

In October, a Cushing man was killed on his motorcycle near Ripley. According to Oklahoma Highway Patrol reports, the driver of a pickup told officers the sun was in his eyes, but residents are concerned the same claim is used during accidents to cover up distracted driving.

There were more than five million car accidents in 2011. The National Safety Council estimates that 25 percent of all crashes involve drivers talking and texting on cellphones, according to its 2011 report. A person is four times as likely to cause a fatal, injury or property damage accident while using a cellphone and driving.

Drive Aware Oklahoma is a grassroots organization working for more than four years to bring an end to texting and driving in Oklahoma.

Forty-one states and Washington D.C., Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed legislation banning the habit.

Dave Koeneke is executive director of the Oklahoma Safety Council and chairman of Drive Aware Oklahoma.

“Texting is the single most prevalent and dangerous because you physically take your eyes off the road,” Koeneke said.

Koeneke said the coalition faced a huge setback when Republican Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon spoke out against the initiative by saying it isn’t needed.

Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report that nine out of 10 people nationwide support the need of a new legislation.

Chuck Mai, vice-president of public affairs at AAA, said there are two reasons opponents oppose the legislation — enforceability and the law that is already in place.

According to Oklahoma statues, “No law enforcement officer shall issue a citation under this section unless the law enforcement officer observes the operator of the vehicle is involved in an accident.”

Law enforcement may ask drivers if they were on their cellphone, but agencies don’t investigate further and are apprehensive to pull cellphone records.

Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, said texting and driving needs to be a primary, not secondary offense.

“The law is reactive not proactive,” Williams said. “I personally want the law to keep up with the pace of technology.”  

A 2005 study published in the journal “Human Factors” by psychologist David Strayer found using a cellphone and driving is worse than drunken driving.

Compared with drivers exceeding the legal blood alcohol limit, users of cellphones, hand-held or hands free, reacted 18 percent more slowly to braking by the car in front and were more likely to get in a rear-end collision.

Lee Denney, R-Cushing, said texting and driving bills have a hard time making it past committee.

Denney voted for an amendment in April 2012 adding new language for texting and driving, but it did not pass.

“Change must start small with new drivers, however it frustrates constituents,” she said. “Every year the initiative gets further. It went past the committee to the floor. Who knows? This may be the year.”

Koeneke said he will never give up. He said cellphone records may only be pulled by an attorney if the family of the loved one sues the driver.

“Drivers have the duty to say I will talk to you later and put away the phone,” he said.

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