While talking to a high school social studies class last fall, state Rep. Joyce McDonald noticed students sending each other text messages on their cellphones. That, she says crisply, sparked a discussion.
“I was really a bit shocked to learn just how much these kids text each other, including when they are driving,” says McDonald, 54. “I mean, I’m a talker. I can’t understand why in the world you would send your friend a text message rather than just calling up to say hello.”
There are plenty of reasons, of course -- with the ability to communicate covertly during a social-studies class high up the list, the Republican concedes with a laugh. But she decided then and there that she would write a bill making DWT -- “driving while texting” -- a crime.
Her campaign gained momentum a month later when, in a widely publicized incident, a Mercer Island, Wash., man was accused of causing a five-car pileup after he was distracted by a message on his BlackBerry.
Last week, McDonald’s bill gained final passage, and would make Washington the first state to impose a specific ban on reading or sending text messages while driving, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
The milestone is not quite as singular as it sounds: Three states -- New York, New Jersey and Connecticut -- and Washington, D.C., all have de facto bans on “DWT” under broader laws that prohibit drivers from using a cellphone in any fashion, other than talking on it via a hands-free speaker device.
California is imposing a similarly broad ban, effective in July 2008.
Nonetheless, Washington state’s measure, which Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign into law, brings attention to the practice of texting while driving, which many lawmakers say is more dangerous than talking while driving.
“It is just so obviously not an acceptable thing to do,” McDonald says.
In Arizona, Democratic state Rep. Steve Farley has proposed a bill to ban DWT, though he says it has been bottled up by a “very libertarian dude” of a committee chair who opposes government regulation of such behavior.
Farley says he was particularly moved by an incident last summer in Phoenix, when a teenage driver who was reportedly texting slammed into a stalled truck. The driver was OK, but two of his passengers suffered severe brain and spinal injuries.
At least one other state, Connecticut, has a DWT bill under consideration. The state already has a ban on any hand-held cellphone use while driving, but the new measure would impose a $500 fine.
Under the California law, state residents will risk receiving a minimum $20 fine for using a cellphone, unless they have a speakerphone or an in-ear device that keeps both hands free.
Many states have debated broad bans on cellphone use, but have rejected them in favor of bans for young drivers only, says Matt Sundeen, a transportation analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 13 prohibit teens or any new drivers from using cellphones.
There are no reliable statistics on how many accidents have been caused by people attempting to send or receive text messages while driving. But it is clear that plenty of people do it.
According to a study released in January by Nationwide Mutual Insurance, about 37% of drivers in their late teens or 20s admitted to having sent or read text messages while driving. By comparison, 17% of drivers in their 30s and 40s admitted doing so; 2% of drivers in their 50s and 60s did.
McDonald says she pushed for her bill in part because legislators had for years resisted passing any sort of ban on cellphone use while driving. But just as her bill was nearing final passage, lawmakers also approved a measure that prohibits drivers from holding cellphones to their ears. Taken together, they will be equivalent to the broader bans passed elsewhere.
In Washington, either offense could net the driver a $101 fine; however, a citation can only be issued if law-enforcement officers have another reason to pull over a motorist, such as erratic weaving, running a red light or speeding.