Wyoming's new law banning text messaging while driving will go into effect July 1. As the 19 other states that have passed similar measures have discovered, it will be difficult to enforce. Some opponents used that fact as an argument against the bill, to no avail.
The Legislature's approval was somewhat surprising, given the state's traditional reluctance to impose government bans on some activities by motorists and passengers. It took years of discussion and cajoling for lawmakers to finally pass an open container bill, and unlike the new anti-texting law, the state's seat belt law still isn't a primary offense -- it's only enforced if officers stop vehicles for other moving violations.
Law enforcement will no doubt have a tough time determining if a driver passing by is texting, as the device may be out of sight, or if someone is legally dialing a cell phone number.
But as Byron Oedekoven of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police noted, his organization supports the statewide texting ban because it should help parents enforce their own family texting bans.
"For some parents, this is the tool they need to be able to have that conversation [with their kids] of legal/illegal and leading a law-abiding life," Oedekoven said. "This may be a tool in the tool chest for them to have that conversation and say, 'Hey! Now it's the law -- no texting!'"
It remains to be seen if the chance of getting a $75 ticket is enough to keep drivers -- especially young ones -- from texting while they're behind the wheel. But there's no doubt that drivers texting is a serious safety hazard.
A study by Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute found that truck drivers increased their risk of crashing 23.2 times while text messaging. The study said texting poses the greatest accidental risk when compared to dialing, talking, listening or reaching for an electronic device. The authors concluded that texting "should be banned in moving vehicles for all drivers."
According to an American Automobile Association report, more than 60 percent of American teenagers admit to being risky drivers, and nearly half of those teens also admit to text messaging behind the wheel.
The results can be deadly. At least two Wyoming teens were reportedly killed in separate one-car crashes in fall 2008 as a result of texting. One driver was text messaging, and the other driver was reading a passenger's text message. When a motorist is distracted and loses control of his or her vehicle, everyone on the road is suddenly put at risk.
While 20 states have enacted texting bans, the penalties vary widely -- too widely. In California, the offense only merits a $20 fine. But in Utah, which passed the nation's toughest ban a year ago, being caught texting while driving can lead to up to three months in jail and a $750 fine. And if someone is killed, it's up to 15 years in prison for a second-degree felony and a $10,000 fine.
Wyoming's $75 fine may be a relatively light punishment, but the state is at least ahead of the curve in recognizing the problem and trying to do something to curb it. There's a national push for a federal ban on texting while driving, and some proponents want to threaten states with the possibility of losing federal highway dollars if they don't pass their own texting bans.
We encourage Wyoming legislators to keep a close watch on the number of texting tickets issued and how many crashes are blamed on text messaging. Depending upon how the new law is working, they may want to revisit the issue in the future.