Mississippi Highway Patrol urges stronger texting law
Jimmie E. Gates, The Clarion-Ledger 11:13 a.m. CT Jan. 12, 2017
Mississippi Highway Patrol official says the state’s near two year-old texting law is too complicated and most law enforcement will write tickets instead for careless driving. Since the law went into effect July 1, 2015, a total of 148 tickets, 54 in 2015 and 94 in 2016, have been written for texting while driving, an MHP official says.
In comparison, last year, more than 1,000 tickets each were written for reckless driving and careless driving, said Highway Patrol spokesman Capt. Johnny Poulos. Poulos told the Senate Highway and Transportation Committee, that the texting law needs to be strengthened for it to work.
The Mississippi Legislature passed House Bill 389 in 2015 and Gov. Phil Bryant signed it into law. The law bans texting and posting to social media while driving. The bill allows a civil fine of $25 per violation. The civil fine increased to $100 per violation in 2016. Poulos said the problem with the texting bill is that it only carries a civil penalty, not a criminal penalty. He said a law enforcement officer has to go to justice court and file an affidavit for texting while driving. “We got to put some teeth into this,” Poulos said of the law.Often a Highway Patrol officer has to drive as far as 50 miles out of his or her jurisdiction to file a texting citation in justice court, so they likely will write a careless driving citation instead, Poulos said.Poulos and others say municipal police departments aren’t likely going to write texting citations because cities get nothing out of it. Another problem MHP sees with the texting law is it lists only two actions that a person would be in violation of the law and that is for texting and posting to social media. He said a motorist can argue they were on a website or playing game instead of texting or posting to social media. “You need to broaden it or make it hands free period,” Poulos said. “If the goal is to prevent and deter behavior, make it hands free.”Some state senators say they had a tougher texting bill in 2014, but it died in the House.
In 2015, the House bill was passed.Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, said he tried unsuccessfully nine years ago to get a bill passed that would have limited cellphone use while driving to hands-free use only. Hudson said California recently passed a law that builds upon its distracted driving laws that bans holding or operating smartphones while driving unless it is mounted to the dashboard or inside windshield. The new law took effect Jan. 1. “We have taught our grandkids not to text while driving,” Hudson said.Sen. Hiob Bryan, D-Armory, said Mississippi’s current texting bill went to “great lengths to do nothing.”When the House Transportation Committee passed the texting bill in 2015, then-committee chairman Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, said it was a first step. He said they couldn’t get a tougher measure passed at that time.
Poulos said MHP sees crashes everyday where they find a cellphone cursory still flashing, likely meaning the person involved in the crash was on the phone texting. Safe Kids Mississippi says the number one killer of young people, age 16-20, is motor vehicle crashed. In 2015, 78 young drivers were killed in crashes in the state, says SafeKids Mississippi Youth Program Manager Tawni Basden. Basden said the figures should be available soon for 2016.Part of SafeKids Mississippi proposals to lower teen motor vehicle fatalities is for the state to strengthen the texting and driving policy to include no phone use and increased fines for all ages.
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