Miss. House approves texting-while-driving ban, after killing proposal at end of 2014 session



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JACKSON, Mississippi — In 2014, a bill to ban texting, emailing and social media use died a messy death in Mississippi's House of Representatives on the last night of the legislative session, prompting public criticism. Friday, House members resurrected the measure, voting 98-20 to send House Bill 389 to the Senate for further debate.

The measure would ban drivers from writing, sending or reading text messages, emails or social media messages. It set a $25 fine until July 1, 2016 and $100 after that. Making and receiving phone calls would still be legal.

Mississippi is one of only six states without a texting ban, although it does ban texting for beginning drivers under 18 and for school bus drivers.

The proposal still faces questions about its enforceability, as well as resistance from libertarian-minded lawmakers. But supporters said Friday that the measure will encourage safety and change the norms of behavior in the same way as mandating seat belt use did.

"It is not a perfect bill," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Johnson, D-Natchez. "It is not the bill I want. But it is the best bill I think we can pass."

Johnson favors a ban on hand-held mobile phone use as well, but said there's not enough legislative support for that. Those who study the subject say it would be easier for police to write a ticket if they knew a driver was breaking the law any time they picked up a phone, as opposed to having to try to distinguish between dialing a number and sending a text.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson. He's the same representative who last year made the procedural motion on the last night of the session that allowed House members to vote on the bill again. That motion ended with the bill's death, as lawmakers adjourned that night without further action.

Friday, Denny said he'd always supported the ban and made the motion with hopes of working out other members' concerns, not realizing the House would leave without doing so.

"That's why I dropped a bill again this year," Denny said after the vote.

Opponents questioned the need, with Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, asking if Johnson could compare texting to how many wrecks are caused by drivers adjusting a car's radio or putting on makeup or eating.

"Maybe the problem is not as profound as we think it is," Moore said.

Some members had opposed the 2014 bill out of fears that it could be used as a pretext by police to stop African-American drivers. The current measure, though, requires data collection on tickets written under the law, creating a record of any racial disparities.

The Mississippi Center for Health Policy, in a December analysis, estimated that a texting ban could have prevented 95 deaths between 2008 and 2012, as long as police can pull someone over for just that offense.


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