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Texting while driving penalties? Time to get MADD

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I really want to hear this public service announcement scored with spooky music, and a Rod Serling voice-alike saying: “That’s the signpost up ahead. Your next stop -- the texting zone!”

New York state is testing out a little more carrot to help along the stick in its campaign against behind-the-wheel texting. To try to nudge drivers off the road safely if they’re going to text, the state is putting in 300 signs -- a paltry number, really, in a big state -- telling drivers, “It can wait: text stop 5 miles,” or whatever distance it is to a turnout or a rest stop, where they can safely text.   

New York is also making texting while driving a five-point penalty on the driving record, not just three points.

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Werner Herzog, the award-winning filmmaker, just made a harrowing, 35-minute-long public service documentary, “It Can Wait,” about texting while driving.

One of the four parts tells the story of a Vermont woman, now brain-damaged, who was hit while she was walking her dog. The woman was left brain-damaged. The dog was thrown through the air but, before he died, wagged his tail at his person as she was taken away in an ambulance.

One story that didn’t make Herzog’s cut was about a driver who killed a boy on a bicycle because he was texting his girlfriend -- who was sitting next to him in the car!

It is inexcusable, and I see it all the time. I saw it Monday, pulling out of the Times garage: a white sedan stopped dead in the middle of the block, the driver holding her phone propped on the steering wheel, texting. I waited and waited and waited for her, and finally pulled out in front of her -- and then she laid on the horn and glared at me as if it were my fault that she wasn’t paying attention to the flow of traffic.

Even AT&T has switched sides and stopped lobbying against crackdowns on texting while driving. It took a simulator to Capitol Hill to give lawmakers a load of how distracting it can actually be.

States and nations are trying all sorts of penalties and PR to stop it. In Britain, an extremely graphic -- repeat, extremely -- PSA depicts the deadly consequences.

A New Jersey judge ruled that just texting someone whom you believe to be driving can make you liable for the consequences.

Maybe California needs to use its moviemaking skills to craft PSAs in the mold of “Red Asphalt,” that series of CHP driver-ed films meant to scare teenagers into driving like their parents, or their grandparents. The Times referred to the films as the “ ‘Reefer Madness’ of driving.” With all the gore-as-entertainment on TV and movie screens, maybe today’s teens would just find them comically corny.

New York’s safe-texting zone is a nice way of trying to enforce a law, but texting while driving may need a muscular, 21st century version of the MADD campaign (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) -- only one that doesn’t even wait for deadly crashes while texting but penalizes the act itself, just as drunk driving is now penalized.

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, says more people are killed by texting drivers now than by drunk ones. If he’s right about that, maybe driving points and fines aren’t enough. (Across the states, fines for texting behind the wheel vary from a paltry $20 in Virginia to $10,000 in Alaska.) Maybe texting while driving needs to carry jail penalties just as DUIs can, without needing a crash to throw the book at texters.

Perhaps states need to empower cops so that just seeing someone texting while driving is legal reason enough for them to pull the driver over and give him a big fat ticket, and maybe jail time for a repeat offender.

California has put drivers behind bars for years for fatal texting: a woman who hit a motorcyclist and then parked and tried to walk away, a man who killed a police officer while he was text-messaging and driving drunk.

California bans hand-held cellphones and texting behind the wheel, and the fines with fees can top $300 for the first offense, but it needs to amp up the driver penalty points, as New York has done.

Torrance police last year nabbed a woman who was texting behind the wheel with a baby in her lap, after someone saw her on the 405 Freeway and called 911.

It shouldn’t have to be that flagrant for police to be able to act, so flagrant that people would read it and think, well, I'm not nearly so bad as that. A few hundred dollars’ in fines and a few points on a driving record, and texting at the wheel won’t be shrugged off as a cost of doing business.

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Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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