Politics & Government

Senate passes bill to ban texting behind the wheel

TOPEKA — After debating how it would be enforced, the Senate voted 34-6 to send a ban on texting while driving to the House on Friday.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, pitched Senate Bill 351 as a public safety issue.

Drivers ticketed for sending a text message or e-mail via a wireless device would face a $100 fine for a first offense. A person who killed another person while texting and driving could be prosecuted under existing involuntary manslaughter charges.

Sen. Mary Pilcher Cook, R-Shawnee, worried about how law enforcement officers would be able to determine whether someone was texting or simply turning a phone on or off.

Owens contended there had to be some level of discretion in the law: If an officer pulled someone over for what appeared to be texting and driving, a decision could be made then.

The debate got heated after Sen. Chris Steineger, D-Kansas City, said the proposal was "popular, but it's dumb."

"The bill is so narrowly written that it is not going to solve the problem, which is inattentive driving," he said.

Sen. Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg, who drafted the proposal, took offense. "I don't give a rat's rear about being popular. It was drafted to save lives," he said.

Emler said he had seen near accidents from people who were texting while driving.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment estimated in committee testimony that a ban on texting while driving would save between seven and 29 lives annually in Kansas.

Nineteen states, the District of Columbia and Guam ban text messaging for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Under the state's graduated driver's license law, teen drivers in Kansas are already barred from using cell phones while driving.

Other lawmakers also suggested the proposed law would be difficult to enforce. But Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said there is value in just having the law.

"This bill sends a message to all of us, not just our kids, that it is a really bad idea to text," she said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle