April 10, 2009
JACKSON -- Gov. Haley Barbour this week approved a bill to make Mississippi one of at least 10 states banning young drivers from text-messaging.
The new law also adds six months to the age for teenagers to get their driver''s license.
Under the old law, teens could get a driver''s license after turning 15 and having a learner''s permit for six months to drive with adult supervision. The new law increases that to one year.
Effective in three months, a new Mississippi driver caught texting behind the wheel can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $500. If there''s an auto accident when someone is texting, the fine can be $1,000.
Nine other states specifically ban text-messaging by young drivers with learner''s permits or intermediate driver''s licenses, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures report of such laws in effect as of January .
The change in Mississippi''s law was pushed in a state with a large number of teens killed in auto accidents.
Mississippi has led the nation for the last decade in the percentage of teenage driving fatalities with a rate of 35 deaths per 100,000 population, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Local teens said this morning they were fine with the text-messaging ban, but felt it should also apply to adults.
"I think texting or talking on the phone while driving is wrong," said Will Russell, 18, a senior at Immanuel Center for Christian Education. "The bill is a good idea, but it ought to be broadened into the adult world too. It should apply to both equally."
Amber Massey, 18, a senior at Columbus High School, said she texts frequently, but not when driving. "I would never do that. I would be too scared," she said.
"Seen that most teens can be really irresponsible, I think it''s a really good idea," said Massey, who has a learner''s permit. "It does bother me a little bit (that the law applies only to teens), but most adults are more mature than teenagers, so it''s very fair."
In addition to the text-messaging ban and requiring teens to carry a learner''s permit six more months, the new law makes them remain in school to retain their driver''s license.
"Not only will this piece of legislation provide some safety measures for teen drivers but also encourage them to stay in school," said House Transportation Chairman Warner McBride, D-Courtland.
As of January, eight states prohibited all drivers -- young and old -- from texting while driving. The Mississippi House last month voted 65-52 against such a broad ban.
Difficult to enforce
While local law enforcement officials agree the bill will give them greater power to prosecute texting teen motorists, they said enforcing the law may be difficult.
"When the story came out that they may be passing this law, I asked around at the office to see if anyone had reported any incidents of texting while driving," said Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John. "It really comes down to a case of whether or not the drivers confessed to doing it when they get pulled over."
Lowndes County Sheriff''s Office officials agreed, saying it is hard to "catch drivers in the act" while they are texting.
"I can safely say I know it happens, but it is kind of difficult to catch drivers doing it," said LCSO Chief Deputy Greg Wright. "But if it was an instance of a serious wreck with injuries or deaths and we had evidence that texting may have caused it, there could be criminal charges filed after we pulled that person''s phone records.
"I know we all talk on the phone while we are driving, but texting is a totally different animal," Wright added. "Your attention is just divided so many different ways to the point that it becomes really dangerous."
Opponents mostly Republicans
The state Legislature passed Senate Bill 2280 in divisive votes. The House approved it in a 85-36 vote. The Senate approved it 47-5 after previously being split 29-20 on the bill. Barbour signed it into law Monday.
Opponents - mostly Republicans - opposed government having a heavier hand in dictating rules of the road.
"We''ve got too many laws on the books increasing the driving age," said Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, who voted against the bill. "We need more training, but we don''t need to increase the driving age."
The bill doesn''t change the current law allowing 15-year-olds to get a learner''s driving permit, but it does increase the minimum age for an intermediate license to 16 and for a full-fledged license to 16 1/2.
This is the first time in recent years the House has adopted a bill to increase the age for young drivers getting their license. The Senate has initiated such legislation, but they''ve gotten killed in the other chamber.
The new law -- which takes effect July 1 -- does loosen the current driving curfew for teenagers. Under the old law, an intermediate license allowed unsupervised driving for young drivers from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The new law extends that time on Fridays and Saturdays to 11:30 p.m.
Dispatch Staff writers Neal Wagner and Wade Leonard contributed to this report.