OUR OPINION: Evidence supports a ban on texting and driving

The Legislature recessed for the weekend looking ahead to a growing number of surviving, important bills, among them proposals that would at least begin to discourage texting and driving in Mississippi with fines imposed when drivers are stopped for a moving violation.

Both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature have passed proposals this session to ban texting while driving, but they are starkly different. The Senate’s version is stronger; the House’s version is very weak, a bare slap on the wrist.

Few issues of public safety arising in recent years have a stronger fact-base in support of restrictions.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is regarded in the top tier of information sources for highway safety, reports that more than 3,300 traffic fatalities in 2011 were directly related to texting while driving.

The general category for texting is called distracted driving, and that could include using any handheld device and other common but questionable behaviors when behind the wheel.

It’s especially troubling that traffic deaths among adolescents through age 20 rises to as much as 20 percent of all fatalities being linked to texting and driving.

It is important for Mississippi to make a start in dealing with distracted driving, a problem that would not have risen to such high incidence had cellphones not become ubiquitous.

Here’s the situation:

• 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 in the session to impose a $250 criminal penalty.

The differences in the bills passed by the two chambers must be worked out before the end of the 2014 session in early April.

We hope the House moves more toward the Senate’s position. Fines sometimes become more effective if the financial string is substantial.

Under current law, intermediate or beginner drivers in Mississippi are prohibited from texting while driving.

Many of the other southern states, including some neighboring Mississippi, have no-texting laws stronger than what is proposed in the Mississippi House bill.

The conservative position related to text-bans and fines should be about saving lives in the face of convincing evidence that a ban would help.