OMG, LMAO, LOL, ROFL.
These messaging acronyms are fine and dandy when the situation is light and fun, but these same letters could spell trouble for drivers and their cell phones very soon.
More and more often as cell phone technology has continued to advance, so has the use of cell phones and their services.
This is especially true as the phenomenon of texting has grown and so have a number of problems with texting while driving at the forefront of the issues.
Thirty-something driver, texter and Tulsa resident Matt Hunnicutt is less concerned about the problem than some Oklahomans seem to be. In fact, he sees very little wrong with it.
"Why else would you have a cell if you can't use it where you need to use it?" he asked. "I'm not going to go through the inconvenience of pulling over to the side of the road to do something I can do without even taking my eyes off the road."
Hunnicutt said that he has texted so often that he rarely needs to even look at his phone when typing a complex message, but that doesn't mean everyone is a great multi-tasker.
A study by the American Automobile Association and Seventeen magazine published on a safety Web site for teens found that 46 percent of American teens admit to texting while driving, and a Nielsen study revealed that teens text an average 2,899 times a month compared to 191 calls.
The AAA, amongst the most vocal driving safety advocacy groups in the United States, is currently spearheading an effort to pass anti-texting legislation in all states that don't already have similar laws.
Currently, only 19 states, including the District of Columbia, have laws prohibiting or regulating usage of mobile devices while operating a motor vehicle, and Oklahoma AAA advocates are hard at work to have this state become No. 20.
"The cell phone industry reports that 110 billion texts are sent per month, you have to believe that many of those happen while driving," said Chuck Mai, an Oklahoma representative of AAA. "The time has come for a law banning texting while driving. The risks are simply too great. Taking your eyes off the road for two seconds doubles your chances of getting into an accident.
"I have not come across one yet who is not in favor of such legislation, not to say that there isn't anyone, but I have yet to come across anyone in either (state legislative) house."
Maybe not in the state Legislature, but certainly some drivers are opposed to the idea of having yet another law -- that they claim -- restricts their personal freedom.
"I pay my cell bill, and I pay my car registration," Hunnicutt said. "I've never hit anyone, and I've been doing this for years. We don't need another law."
Mai said some 93 percent of AAA members surveyed support such a ban, and apparently state legislators are on the same page.
The Legislature has been working on two bills -- in both the House and the Senate -- to limit cell phone use and altogether ban the use of texting while driving.
The most recent, House Bill 3250, is authored by Rep. Sue Tibbs, R-Tulsa, and was presented in February of this year.
The bill would prohibit people with a learner permit or intermediate license from using a cell phone while driving, except in emergencies.
In addition, the bill tacks on a fine of $1,000 for writing, sending or reading a text message while driving for an individual of any age. So far, the bill has passed the House of Representatives' Public Safety Committee and was scheduled to be heard March 9 by the full House.
Tibbs said she was motivated to draft the bill after speaking to a state Highway Patrol officer who was also one of her constituents. The trooper convinced her that the issue of texting while driving was becoming a bigger and bigger problem, and he urged her to do something about it.
Tibbs ran a slightly different version of the bill last year, but it never received a hearing on the House floor after being passed out of committee. She's more optimistic about the measure's chances this year.
"I think it'll have a positive hearing," she said. "There were only three no votes in committee. I think the people in the House realize the people are saying we've got to get a handle on this problem. We're not saying these kids are bad; if we had had the opportunity to do that when we were young, we probably would have, too."
Tibbs' original bill stipulated only a $200 fine for texting while driving. The current measure increases that penalty five-fold.
"We rethought that," she said. "I thought, when you really want to get somebody's attention is when you take something out of their back pocket. A thousand dollars is a pretty hefty fine. I don't want to send anybody to prison or jail, but I certainly want to get their attention."
While the Oklahoma Legislature is taking action, the executive branch has been doing its part as well.
On Jan. 21, Gov. Brad Henry issued an executive order banning drivers from texting while operating state-owned vehicles and was met with enthusiastic responses from legislators from both sides of the aisle.
"There really is no way someone can be an alert and responsible driver while he or she is also reading or typing out keys on a small keyboard," Henry said after signing the order. "This is a matter of common sense."
The city Tulsa hopped on the texting while driving law bandwagon a bit ago. This past year, the City Council voted to urge the state to ban the practice following a hearing conducted by the state House Public Safety Committee, which featured both safety advocates and law enforcement officials, highlighting the extent of the problem in the state.
On Feb. 5 of this year, Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. signed an executive order, which bans employees from texting not only while driving city vehicles but also when driving private vehicles if they are on city business.
Currently, though, Oklahoma still lacks a comprehensive state-wide anti-texting law as it makes its way through the legislative red tape.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 get into more accidents than any other demographic.
In 2008 -- the latest year reporting statistics by the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety -- there were 1,016 non-injury crashes, 661 injury crashes and 13 fatal crashes that resulted from drivers being distracted by electronic devices, which are defined as cell phones, pagers, navigation devices, etc.
The majority of these crashes occurred with people between ages 16 and 25.
Teens are not the only demographic that exhibit risky behavior when driving. People as old as 66 have been reported by the Department of Public Safety as causing crashes from being distracted while driving.
As Hunnicutt said, people in their 20s and 30s are just as culpable in risking their own lives and the lives of others as teens.
In a New York Times article last year, Oklahoma City resident Christopher Hill shared his story of how his distracted driving caused him to run into 61-year-old Linda Doyle and killed her. He barely speaks to his passengers in the car now, not to mention talk or text on the phone. Hill had never had an accident or even a speeding ticket before that incident.
"I hope (drivers) don't have to go through what I did to realize it's a problem," Hill said.
While texting and driving seems dangerous, that doesn't seem to be stopping most people from doing it.
"I guess it is dangerous, but like I said, I haven't been in an accident, and it's not like I'm drinking or something," Hunnicutt said.
According to Officer Craig Murray of the Tulsa Police Department, the current Oklahoma law states that an accident has to have occurred before a driver receives a ticket for texting while driving.
The crime is called "distracted while driving," -- the driver receives the ticket after an accident, not for the actual act of using a cell phone while driving.
The state of Colorado is one of the latest to take a more pro-active swipe at the pandemic of cell phone-related distracted driving by passing a new law on Dec. 1.
Colorado State House Bill 1094 prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from operating a mobile phone (in any capacity) at least while the vehicle is in motion, and prohibits all drivers -- no matter what their age -- from texting.
Oklahoma's Senate Bill 900 mirrors, somewhat, the Colorado statute "which would ban teenagers from texting while behind the wheel," said state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, a supporter of the bill.
Leftwich, a Democratic state senator from Oklahoma's 44th district, had previously been involved in increasing safety on Oklahoma roadways by pushing to improve our state's Graduated Driver's License law, effectively reducing the number of teen-related accidents. Now she's pushing to make them even safer.
In a recent editorial, she cited a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Study conducted this past summer which found that truckers increased their risk of a collision an eye-opening 23 times while they were texting.
A vocal advocate of safe driving, Leftwich makes it clear she thinks something needs to be done to confront the threat she considers unsafe phone habits present.
"We've seen excellent results from our GDL laws. But clearly there is more we can do to make our roads and highways safer for all of us," she wrote in an editorial. "I hope for the sake of all Oklahoma drivers ... that the State Legislature will work together ... to address this critical public safety issue."
Sen. Leftwich joined her colleagues in praising Gov. Henry's executive order but indicates she will still press for passage of Senate Bill 900.
"(The executive order) is a great start, but (it) only applies to state employees," she said.
SB 900 was filed by Leftwich during the 2009 session, but it has yet to receive a hearing in the Legislature.
Leftwich is hopeful that the rising public interest surrounding texting and driving -- perhaps further aided by the increased attention paid to the practice by celebrities and other state legislatures -- will mean passage of some measure such as Tibbs' during the 2010 session.
Despite the fact that a similar measure was defeated last year, Tibbs and bi-partisan collaborator Danny Morgan have good reason to be confident that this bill will be successful, especially in light of new -- and disturbing -- statistical information.
The city of Sapulpa recently passed an order similar to Henry's executive order more than a month ago, and the city of Sand Springs is currently reviewing its policies and considering the passage of an order restricting cell phone use.
In addition, the city of Owasso is currently "implementing a revised cell phone policy that restricts texting or checking email while operating a city vehicle" according to a passage on that city's official Web site.
But there are many people who are opposed to anti-cell phone legislation for a myriad of reasons. Personal choice and personal responsibility are factors in this issue, and some conservative leaning politicians are concerned that there might be a possibility that some rights may be unnecessarily infringed.
State Sen. Randy Brogdon believes that the government might be going too far legislating such behavior.
"A little bit of personal responsibility goes a long way," Brogdon said. "More legislation I don't think is the answer to something like that."
Brogdon said he isn't opposed to making people safer on Oklahoma roads, but he is opposed to expanding government enforcement power into the private lives of Oklahomans.
"The libertarian view is that texting while driving is a distraction similar to adjusting the radio, operating a navigation system, using an iPod, and talking to passengers -- activities that pose a safety risk but are not likely to be outlawed," said Tulsa lawyer Andrew D. Balint.
Officer Murray compares the argument against texting and mobile phone laws with the seatbelt law controversy. While they are certainly two different issues, both invite the question: Why should a law enforcement agency concern itself with the practices of otherwise law abiding citizens who don't have malicious intent?
"When we had the seatbelt law in '96, we had trouble getting it through," Officer Murray said. "We don't want to dictate to a parent what they should do beyond some points."
But, as Balint suggests, there are other considerations. "A texting ban is not akin to a seat belt requirement, which impinges on an individual's freedom to protect only that individual," he said. "A texting ban protects everyone on the road, from drivers to passengers to pedestrians.
"There are many legitimate and urgent reasons for texting, e-mailing, or calling at any given time, including while driving," Balint said, raising the issue of emergency situations that might require a driver to use his or her cell to call for help.
Despite the good intentions of the new Colorado law, the difficulty traffic enforcement officials have in executing the law is in identifying a "teen" driver. After all -- as Officer Murray points out -- it can be difficult to tell the difference between a 20-year-old and a 17-year-old on sight, especially when that person is passing you going 45 or 50 miles per hour.
That might be a problem for all drivers in their early to mid-20s, especially for Tulsan Amy Wright, a college senior who is constantly mistaken for a high school student.
"I don't think it's particularly fair to single out teenagers anyway," she said. "If they want to pass a law restricting texting they should pass it for everyone. Teenagers are probably a lot better at doing it anyway, and may even be less of a threat than someone who's like 45 or whatever. I can type an entire message without even looking at my phone.
"The ticket would have to be pretty expensive to convince people not to do it," Wright said. It's an assertion that seems to be supported by Officer Murray.
"Even if they were to pass something like the seatbelt law, it (would only be) a $20 fine," he said.
But the pending legislation appears to have a little more teeth to its bite with the proposed $1,000 fine.
Do we need more laws? Probably not, but it is becoming increasingly clear that current culture's cult-like desire for technology is reaching a flashpoint, if not a crossroads with no stop signs. Can the state effectively impose and enforce a texting- or any-type-of-technology-while-driving ban if citizens don't understand that some of their "rights" are actually "privileges" based an archaic concept, still known, but rarely dusted off, called self control?
The consensus is clear: something -- anything -- needs to be done, and it needs to be fairly expediently. Even if the laws can't restrict everyone from engaging in their dangerous cell phone related habits, many Oklahoman lawmakers, and Leftwich in particular, feel that the state needs to follow the example set by Colorado and Arkansas in restricting the high-risk teenage age group.
"When people text and drive, they aren't watching the road, and because of this, innocent people have died," Leftwich said. "At the very least, we should target Oklahoma drivers who are already at a higher risk of being involved in an accident."
Whatever happens, some drivers are going to be more resistant to change than others. "Another thing is how are they going to know you're texting in the middle of night?" Hunicutt asked. "Or what if you're just checking the time, and you get pulled over and ticketed for sending a message? That's not cool."
Maybe it isn't. But it's hard to justify not passing a bill that could save lives, even if it occasionally inconveniences people.
Mike Easterling contributed to this story.
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