Too many are texting while driving

There will be plenty for the 2010 Legislature to argue about when the session opens Jan. 11, from the budget crisis to the death penalty. But one thing ought to inspire harmony as well as urgency: the need to put Kansas on record against the dangerously stupid behavior of texting while driving.

To their credit, lawmakers included a ban on the use of all wireless electronic devices by drivers under 17 in the state's new graduated driver's licensing law, which kicks in Jan. 1.

Unfortunately, that still allows adult drivers to text freely.

And as a November report from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project noted: "The frequency of teens reporting parent cell-phone use behind the wheel in our focus groups was striking, and suggested, in many cases, that texting while driving is a family affair."

While it's true that eating and other kinds of multitasking also count toward the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's tally of nearly 6,000 deaths last year in distracted-driving crashes, texting has been called the "perfect storm" of driver distraction because it occupies a driver's eyes, hands and mind for a period long enough, at highway speeds, to travel the length of a football field. From 2003 through 2008 in Kansas, there were 23 deaths and nearly 900 injuries in 1,800 crashes in which cell phones were a contributing distraction.

Nineteen states, the District of Columbia and Guam have passed all-ages bans on texting while driving. Utah provides the toughest model, allowing law enforcement officers to pull over drivers they catch in the act and treating the offense as seriously as drunken driving. Federal legislation also is in the works.

Gov. Mark Parkinson said last week that he supports a ban, and the Senate Ways and Means Committee has agreed to sponsor a ban next session that would include possible jail time. The committee's action came the day after Chairman Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg, had the experience of being stuck behind a texting driver going 45 mph on a Kansas interstate as cars whizzed by.

"It's just wrong," he said.

Plus, a ban would come cheap in a year when the Legislature will have no money for anything.

Outlawing drivers' texting won't put a stop to it. In states with bans, drivers predictably try to keep the devices low and out of sight.

But "we have to get across to people that they have to stop texting," said Emler.

Even if state lawmakers remain uninterested in following the lead of other states in passing a primary seat-belt law or banning all but hands-free cell phone use behind the wheel, surely they can see the need to outlaw texting while driving. As Kansans who spend any time at all behind the wheel can attest, common sense isn't working as a deterrent.