Oklahoma is in line to become the 46th in the nation to pass a ban on texting and driving.
A bill passed on April 29 by the House goes to Gov. Mary Fallin, who urged lawmakers in her State of the State speech in February to pass such a ban on composing or reading texts behind the wheel. Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said the governor is expected to sign the measure into law.
“We are pleased that the Legislature heard the governor and took up legislation that we think is potentially lifesaving,” Weintz said.
In the past, lawmakers opposed such a ban, because they said it was too restrictive or unnecessary because inattentive driving is already illegal. But applause broke out in the House chamber as lawmakers, without debate, gave overwhelming bipartisan support, 85-7, for the measure by Rep. Terry O’Donnell, R-Tulsa, who authored similar legislation last year that died on the House floor.
A Senate amendment was accepted that makes texting and driving a primary offense, meaning Oklahoma drivers could be pulled over and ticketed for texting while driving alone. An earlier version made texting and driving a secondary offense, with drivers having to be pulled over for another offense before they could be cited for texting while driving.
The Trooper Nicholas Dees and Trooper Keith Burch Act is named for two Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers who were struck by a motorist on Jan. 31 who authorities say was distracted by his phone. Dees was killed and Burch was seriously injured while investigating an accident on Interstate 40.
“I want to thank Rep. O’Donnell for doing this,” said Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, who paid homage to the troopers’ family members, some of whom were in the House gallery. “We are so sorry for your loss.”
He added that the measure may prevent other troopers from having to inform other families that a loved one has died because of a deadly distracted driving collision. “That’s our silver lining,” Christian said.
A 2009 study on cellphones and distracted driving by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that text messaging increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by 23 times over a driver who wasn’t distracted. In 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that distracted drivers were the cause of 18 percent of all fatal crashes.
“Distraction is a contributing factor to more crashes than anybody ever thought,” AAA Oklahoma spokesman Chuck Mai said, adding that his and other organizations have sponsored educational campaigns to prevent distracted driving.
“Education has done some good. But now that we have the enforcement tool … it will be against the law,” Mai said. “And that’s the point. We want to modify behavior. We want to save lives.”
Following the measure’s passage, O’Donnell said texting while driving puts motorists in danger and called a ban “a long-term investment into the safety of those using our roads and highways.”
The legislation goes into effect Nov. 1. Violations are punishable by a fine of up to $100.
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