Analysis: Enforcement big factor in texting debate

Undoubtedly bills will be filed to strengthen Mississippi’s texting-while-driving ban during the 2011 legislative session, and questions about enforcement are sure to be raised.

A law enacted in 2009 banned beginning teenage drivers from sending text messages from behind the wheel. Drivers caught in violation could face a misdemeanor charge and a fine of up to $500. If there’s an accident while someone is texting, the fine is up to $1,000.

Legislation died in committee this past session that sought to ban all ages from sending text messages while driving and require minors to use a handsfree device if talking on a cell phone while driving.

Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said he’s ready to advocate for an across-the-board ban next year.

“It’s a given, it would difficult to enforce, but our law enforcement officers will at least be more aware,” Tollison said.

But there are other factors to consider, said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, who is a member the House Public Utilities Committee, which could possibly consider the legislation.

Hines said Mississippi “has a history of profiling. My concern is how do we put a law in place that will allow law enforcement to do their job adequately without subjecting people to harsh treatment?”

Hines said any motorist using a cell phones as a GPS tracker could also be targeted if entering an address while driving.

Hines said he’d support legislation that included a provision that cell phone companies add a handsfree device with every phone purchased.

The Department of Public Safety will ask lawmakers to stiffen the law, said agency spokesman Jon Kalahar, who didn’t give any specifics about proposed changes. Kalahar said the law is difficult to enforce in its current form because it targets teens driving with permits or intermediate licenses, who are typically 15 to 16 years old.

“The trooper or law enforcement officer has to see them texting behind the wheel and even then the driver could be dialing a phone number,” Kalahar said. “Also, the driver could be 17 years old and have a permanent license.”

Thirty states have passed texting bans for all drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those, laws were enacted this year in Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming, said Anne Teigen, an NCSL policy specialist.

Teigen said some states, such as Mississippi, have targeted specific groups rather than pass a blanket law. Teigen said one of the issues raised in the debate over the laws is whether they can be enforced.

“A lot of these laws still let you use the handheld phone to dial a number and press ‘send,’” Teigen said.

Cpl. Johnny Poulos, a spokesman for the Mississippi Highway Patrol, said troopers will pull over any motorist for careless driving, and in many cases the law officers discover cell-phone usage is involved.

“If that person tells you, ‘I’m so sorry, but I was just texting,’ the only law we have is the teen law,” Poulos said.

Until the state law is changed, Poulos said troopers are relying on a “responsible public” to give up the practice of texting or dialing while driving.

The patrol has partnered with Cellular South, a cell phone service provider, in its development of a website targeting teen drivers. The site, which will be unveiled on Friday, will feature a simulator, videos and statistical information about the dangers of using a cell phone while behind the wheel, said Mary Claire Kinnison, a scholastic and sports market specialist for Cellular South.

“The is such a dangerous habit for people to get into and we just want to support awareness,” Kinnison said.

Shelia Byrd/The Assocated Press