Upcoming case could shine light on text-while-driving laws

By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal

A decision to open or seal a video showing a tractor-trailer driver texting up until the moment of a fatal accident will be made by Circuit Judge Andy Howorth next month.
The family of Dwight White, killed when the tractor-trailer collided with his vehicle, asks that the video be open so the public can see the dangers of texting while driving.
Misty West of Tupelo, White’s daughter, said she wants the video to be public because she wants to push the Mississippi Legislature to pass a law banning texting while driving.
“The reason behind pushing for the video is because I want to show it to show the consequences,” West said Wednesday. “This is what happens when you’re texting, playing a video game or Facebooking” while driving.
The wreck occurred April 9, 2011, on Highway 78 near the Auburn Road exit.
At about 5 a.m., White was stopped in traffic caused by an accident when Marcus Hardin’s tractor-trailer collided with White’s vehicle.
The tractor-trailer, owned by Pat Salmon & Sons Inc., was equipped with a pair of video cameras that captured the view of the road and Hardin as he operated the rig. The motion for the White family to make the video public claims it shows a long line of red taillights stopped on Highway 78 and Hardin focusing on his cellphone.
Mississippi has no law banning drivers from texting or using cellphones while operating a motor vehicle.
However, state law bans anyone with a learner’s permit from using a cellphone to text while driving.
The hearing before Howorth is set for June 19 in Marshall County, where the lawsuit was filed.
The defense, Pat Salmon and Sons Inc., the estate of Marcus Hardin and the state attorney general, argue that while the video can be considered evidence, due to its graphic nature it shouldn’t be shown to the public.
The Legislature continues to reject bills to broaden texting-while-driving laws.
For the past three years, state Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, has introduced legislation that would make using a cellular device while driving illegal. Year after year, the bills die in committee.
Hudson said he doesn’t want Mississippi to be the last state to adopt a law concerning distracted driving.
“Are we going to be last again?” he said. “I have a family member that is paralyzed for life from a wreck. She was riding with a boy who just got a new car and was texting.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation says sending text messages is the most dangerous distraction while driving because it requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration bans anyone from texting while operating a commercial motor vehicle and 34 states have laws making texting while driving a primary ticketable offense.
Hudson and West agree the issue is about commonsense public safety.
“My sole purpose with this is to save lives,” West said. “I want something good to come out of this. In Mississippi, we’ve got to implement a law.”
The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association says more than 196 billion text messages were sent or received in the United States in June 2011, up 50 percent from June 2009.
Tupelo Police Officer Alan Chavers said he sees people on their cellphones just about every time he goes on patrol, and like speed limit signs and seat belt laws, a text messaging law would be a great help.
West said she hopes Judge Howorth will allow the 2011 wreck video to be seen by the public.
“I want everyone, this company and our legislators to know this video needs to be out there,” she said. “I would love for our legislators to see it and say we need to implement a law.”
jb.clark@journalinc.com

FactBox
3,092 people were killed by distracted drivers in 2010.

41,600 were injured in distracted driver crashes in 2010.

Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 secons.
Using a cell phone delays reactions as much as having a .08 blood alcohol concentration.

(United States Department of Transportation)