For once, Wyoming is ahead of the curve in passing a law aimed at increasing public safety on the road. Today a new law goes into effect that bans texting while driving in the Cowboy State, and we believe it will help protect people's lives.
It's difficult to explain why Wyoming legislators have been historically reluctant to pass such safety measures. The state was one of the last in the nation to pass an open container law, and it still makes violating the seat belt law a secondary offense.
By comparison, the texting ban had a relatively easy time getting the Legislature's approval. Maybe it's because texting while driving is such an obvious hazard, and other states are jumping on the bandwagon. Wyoming is one of nine states to pass the law this year, bringing to 28 the total number of states where texting by motorists is outlawed.
"Crashes often occur because of inattention," noted Col. Jess Oyler of the Wyoming Highway Patrol. "Texting causes a motorist to divert concentration away from driving, as looking at the keyboard to compose messages takes eyes off the road, and is a distraction that can too easily contribute to causing a crash."
It's difficult to determine precisely how many accidents have been caused by texting. But at least two Wyoming teens were reportedly killed in separate one-car crashes in fall 2008 as a result of texting. One young driver was text messaging, and the other was reading a passenger's text message.
The U.S. Department of Transportation indicated that when people use cell phones when they drive, they can have the reflexes and reaction times of someone who has a blood-alcohol content of .08, which is the same level as a drunken driver in Wyoming.
Wyoming's law applies to any hand-held electronic wireless device. A violation will result in a $75 ticket, which should be enough of a financial incentive to keep people from texting. If it isn't, lawmakers can always consider raising the fine. In Utah, which passed the toughest law in the nation last year, being caught texting while driving can lead to up to three months in jail and a $750 fine.
Some states whose texting bans also go into effect today are taking it slowly -- too slowly, in our view. Iowa is launching an education campaign that will allow law enforcement officers to only issue warnings during the first year. Even when it's fully in effect in Iowa, the fine will only be $30, and it's a secondary offense -- drivers cannot be stopped solely for texting.
"This new law is not about writing tickets, it is about saving lives. ... The focus is on changing behavior," explained Iowa Department of Public Safety Director Gene Meyer.
We agree that more education about the dangers of texting while driving is necessary. However, there is no valid reason not to enforce the fine immediately, since it can be a deterrent to breaking the new law. We hope the law is vigorously enforced here.
In some states, law enforcement officials report that it's difficult to enforce the bans because it's hard to see if a driver is texting. But there are indications that the Wyoming Highway Patrol will be watching for, according to Capt. Len DeClercq.
"If, for example, we observe a vehicle weaving, see an unsafe lane change, or notice particularly slow speeds, this will alert us to seek the cause for the questionable driving patterns," he said.
In 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 5,870 people died and 515,000 were injured because of distracted driving. Wyoming and the other states focusing attention on eliminating the distraction of texting should help significantly reduce those numbers.