TOPEKA — A school project about texting while driving turned into a passion that led a 13-year-old Wichitan to urge lawmakers Thursday to ban the practice.
"Texting is such a habit (for young people) that when they get behind the wheel of a car, they don't take driving seriously when they have access to a cell phone," said Kaitlin Salyer, a student at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School.
According to a Harvard University study, 2,600 deaths each year result from drivers distracted by cell phones, she told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"This bill needs to become a law because it will be the final push to save lives," said Salyer, who studied the issue for her eighth-grade project.
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Salyer said she planned to follow the progress of Senate Bill 351, which carries a fine of up to $500 and possible jail time for a first offense.
It is one of four percolating through the Legislature that would ban texting while driving. As texting has grown in popularity, so have concerns about its impact on drivers.
Nineteen states, the District of Columbia and Guam ban text messaging for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Kansas teens already are barred from using cell phones while driving under the state's graduated driver's license bill, which took effect Jan. 1. The new bills would expand the ban to all drivers.
This week, the federal government banned bus drivers and commercial truck drivers from texting while driving.
The House Transportation Committee last week heard testimony on House Bill 2439, which would fine drivers $100 if they sent text-based messages via a wireless device such as a cell phone.
The Senate proposal comes with much stricter penalties, including a fine of up to $500 and possibly a month of jail time for a first offense. That could escalate to a maximum $2,500 fine and one year of jail time for a third-time offender.
The Senate bill would allow a driver who had an accident while texting to be charged with involuntary manslaughter if someone died. That would be punishable by a minimum of 38 to 48 months in prison.
No one opposed the idea of banning texting while driving, but some expressed concerns about the penalties.
Ed Klumpp, lobbyist for the Kansas Peace Officers Association and Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, said that with crowded jails, people were unlikely to spend time behind bars for texting and driving, and that the rules might not be applied uniformly. Because the fine would be at a judge's discretion, a first-time offender could pay between $0 and $500, he noted.
Paula Clayton, director of the bureau of health promotion for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, estimated that banning texting while driving would save between seven and 29 lives annually in Kansas.
Rep. Raj Goyle, D-Wichita, relayed the story of Sahar Eshghi, a Wichita State University student and family friend, who was sent to the hospital with a shattered femur and almost died Oct. 31 after the car she was riding in crashed at 60 mph into another vehicle stopped at a red light.
The driver was texting, Goyle said.
The statistics and studies are overwhelming and clear that texting is dangerous, he said.
"This is a commonsense measure that will protect our constituents," he said.