Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature have passed proposals this session to ban texting while driving.
The House on Thursday passed a bill 91-27 to make it a $25 civil penalty for any person convicted of texting while driving. House Transportation Chair Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said the civil penalty would prevent the offense from counting on a person’s record as a misdemeanor. The Senate passed legislation earlier this session to impose a $250 criminal penalty.
The differences in the bills passed by the two chambers must be worked out before the scheduled end to the 2014 session in early April.
Legislation dealing with driving-related safety issues has traditionally been more difficult to pass in the more populist-leaning House. The House was reluctant for many years to mandate the use of seat belts.
Johnson faced tough questioning from House members on the proposal.
“This is a start, something to get the ball rolling,” said Johnson, who added his ultimate goal in future years would be to prevent the use of all hand-held communication devices.
“If you can stop texting and save one life by someone saying ‘I don’t want to pay’…(a fine) you will have done a great public service,” Johnson said to his colleagues.
Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, asked wasn’t it just as dangerous to perform other tasks while driving and asked how a law enforcement officer would know a person was texting and not simply dialing a number.
Moore said he is concerned local governments would see a new law prohibiting texting while driving as “a money maker” and that law enforcement would pull people over for probable cause and it would be difficult to prove innocence.
Johnson conceded if the texting ban becomes law he would try to broaden the it in coming years.
“If you are riding around and if you want to talk, do it hands-free,” he said. Johnson added studies have shown that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.
Moore asked what about a person who cannot afford a hands-free device.
“Wait until you get home,” Johnson replied.
Johnson originally had proposed a $100 fine. But Rep. Greg Haney, R-Gulfport, was successful in amending the bill to make it $25 for the first year.
Under current law, intermediate or beginner drivers are prohibited from texting while driving.