Opinion: Better Late Than Never for Texting While Driving Ban

Three Young Oklahoma Lives Forever Changed

Nobody can accuse us Oklahomans of being early adopters. My first thought about a bill passed this week by the Oklahoma House which would ban texting while driving is: better late than never.

House Bill 1965 was passed, 96-2, on Tuesday by the Oklahoma House of Representatives. But it’s not law yet. Now it goes to the Senate, where the bill had its first formal reading today.

The bill would make it illegal to send or read a text, email or instant message while driving. First offenders would face a $250 fine, which would double to $500 for subsequent offenses. The bill specifically allows hands-free use of electronic devices.

The bill would make texting while driving a secondary violation, which means law enforcement officers would have to have another reason to stop you before they could write you up for texting.

Unlike some similar bills that have considered, HB 1965 would not forbid cities and towns from adopting stricter local ordinances of their own.

The bill would take effect Nov. 1. (Here is Okla House Bill 1965.)

You Mean It’s Not Against the Law Already?

Are you surprised to learn that it’s not already against the law to text while operating a motor vehicle in Oklahoma? We are one of just six states that doesn’t already have such a ban on the books. Like I said, we’re not early adopters.

But it looks like we’re finally on our way to becoming State No. 45. Several state senators have already expressed support for the bill, including some who had introduced similar measures in the Senate.

Rep. Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa, the author of HB 1965, said the legislation is not just about an immediate crack down on texting while driving, but about changing public attitudes. “When our state passed drinking and driving laws and mandatory seatbelt laws, little changed overnight. But eventually the attitudes of drivers changes and lives were saved,” O’Donnell said.

Three Young Lives

OHP Trooper Nicholas Dees

OHP Trooper Nicholas Dees

 

OHP Trooper Keith Burch

OHP Trooper Keith Burch

 

The House voted to dedicate O’Donnell’s bill to Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers Nicholas Dees and Keith Burch. Dees was killed and Burch seriously injured in a traffic accident on Jan. 31 on Interstate 40 in Shawnee.

Dees and Burch had responded to an accident that involved a jackknifed semitrailer. A driver who was allegedly updating his social media while driving hit Dees and Burch, who were out of their vehicle, at a high rate of speed. The incident happened at about 10 p.m. on a Saturday. The driver has been arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter.

Dees was just 30 on the night he lost his life. His injured partner, Burch, is only 27. The two men graduated from the OHP academy less than two years ago. The arrested driver is 29 years old.

If a texting while driving ban had been implemented last year or the year before that, would the tragedy that happened last month have been prevented? It is impossible to know. But when drivers in Oklahoma are cautioned against texting while driving, do any of them respond with the thought: “Hey, it can’t be too serious. It’s not even against the law.” I suspect so.

It is a shame that one young life had to be lost and two more forever changed before Oklahoma acknowledged the obvious: texting while driving is dangerous after all and should indeed be made illegal.