Troopers support Miss. texting ban

JACKSON – In his 25 years on the job, Mississippi Highway Patrol Trooper Walter Armstrong says he has gone to too many homes in the middle of the night, telling parents their child had died in a collision. In many cases, cell phones contributed to the crash, Armstrong said Thursday during a news conference at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass a bill that bans newly licensed teenage drivers from sending text messages behind the wheel. “Yes, we’ve had a number of recent tragedies that might have been prevented if we had this law in effect,” Armstrong said. Under the bill, a new driver caught texting could face a misdemeanor charge and a fine of up to $500. If there’s an accident when someone is texting while driving, the fine would be up to $1,000. The bill also would add six months to the minimum age for teenagers to get their driver’s licenses. The bill is awaiting action in the Senate. It has cleared the House. 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. Armstrong said new drivers already have a lot to adjust to. He said they have to watch out for other motorists and pedestrians and maintain proper driving habits, such as using turn signals and seat belts. “If you add in texting while operating a vehicle to beginning drivers, then you’ve certainly got a problem,” he said. The texting ban would apply only to drivers with learner’s permits, which require another licensed driver to be in the vehicle, and intermediate licenses, which restrict the hours for unsupervised driving. Under current Mississippi law, a driver can get a learner’s permit at 15. After six months with no accidents or tickets, the person can move to an intermediate license. Six months later with a clean record and a minimum age of 16, a person can get a license to drive alone. The bill wouldn’t change the minimum age for a learner’s permit. But it would move the minimum age for an intermediate license to 16. And a full-fledged license could be obtained six months later. The intermediate license allows unsupervised driving from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Terrell Knight, a spokesman for Mississippi-based Cellular South, said his company also supports the bill. He said cellular companies offer handsfree devices that could be used by drivers. “This policy supports what we in the wireless industry have already been preaching,” Knight said. Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia, first introduced bill five years ago after one of his constituents lost their son in a car crash. The 15½-year-old’s vehicle left the roadway on a rainy night, Butler said. He said it was an accident that could have been avoided if “he had a little more time with an experienced driver in the car.” *** The bill is Senate Bill 2280.

Shela Byrd/The Associated Press