Mississippi Senate Passes Texting-While-Driving Bill, Governor Expected to Sign

Mississippi is one step closer to becoming the 45th state to ban texting while driving, after the state Senate overwhelming passed such a bill Monday.

The governor, for his part, is expected to sign the measure into law if it’s not held for more debate.

“As with all bills, he will review it closely,” spokeswoman Nicole Webb wrote in an email. “He does support the bill and plans to sign it.”

House Bill 389 would ban drivers from writing, sending or reading text messages, emails or social media messages. It set a $25 fine until July 1, 2016 and $100 after that. Making and receiving phone calls would still be legal.

Three Republican senators – Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, Angela Hill of Picayune and Michael Watson of Pascagoula, voted against the bill. They say that the bill would allow police officers to pull people over at any time claiming they believed someone was looking at a cellphone.

“It opens up Pandora’s Box in regards to your civil liberties and the potential for abuse is too much to look away,” McDaniel said.

When proponents suggested that anyone wrongly ticketed could fight it in court, he said it was unrealistic to believe anyone would hire a lawyer to fight a $25 civil fine.

“Simply because we’re elected doesn’t mean we can pass a law and change all of human behavior,” said McDaniel, who noted his father died in an auto accident in 1999.

McDaniel said that if he had been in the Legislature at the time, he also would have voted against Mississippi’s law mandating seat-belt use.

Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, a supporter of the bill, said that if McDaniel’s argument that people should be relied on to use their own common sense to protect themselves was carried to its logical end, Mississippi would have no traffic regulations at all.

“Why do we have any laws?” Hudson asked. “Why do we have speeding laws, or traffic signs, or yellow lines? The reason we have laws is to protect lives.”

Mississippi is one of only six states without a texting ban, although it does ban texting for beginning drivers under 18 and for school bus drivers. A similar measure died on procedural move on the last night of the 2014 session after it appeared to have passed.

Some black lawmakers had opposed the 2014 bill out of fears that it could be used as a pretext by police to stop African-American drivers. The current measure, though, requires data collection on tickets written under the law, creating a record of any racial disparities.

Advocates cite studies finding bans have prevented deaths. The Mississippi Center for Health Policy, in a December analysis, estimated that a texting ban could have prevented 95 deaths between 2008 and 2012, as long as police can pull someone over for just that offense.

“It’s something we’ve been working on a long time, and as one of the senators said, it’s long overdue,” said Dr. Claude Brunson, president of the Mississippi Medical Association.

McDaniel, though, cited other studies that show texting hadn’t decreased even after bans in other states.