Editorials

No text message, phone call is worth this price

A bouquet sits near the spot on U.S. Highway 90 where Tyler Cooke, 16, was killed in a two-vehicle car crash in 2017.
A bouquet sits near the spot on U.S. Highway 90 where Tyler Cooke, 16, was killed in a two-vehicle car crash in 2017. Sun Herald file

If you've driven in South Mississippi, chances are you've encountered someone behind the wheel whose mind wasn't on the task at hand.

Perhaps they were drifting dangerously close to the wrong lane and a head-on collision. Maybe they were sitting contentedly through a green light.

Whatever.

We'd also be willing to get their gaze was downward toward a bright, shiny object, the telephone in their hand.

If you don't know what's the big deal, you should read the story headlined "Why Mississippi is the deadliest place to drive a car," a Mississippi Today story you can find at SunHerald.com or in Sunday's print edition.

Larrison Campbell gives readers a look deep into the behaviors that landed Mississippi in this unenviable spot. Mississippi also leads the nation in texting while driving, even though there's a law on the books that makes it illegal.

Illegal, but virtually not enforceable, law enforcement officers say. The problem it's not illegal to hold a phone in your hand while driving and that makes it hard to distinguish someone making a phone call from someone who is texting.

“Once you pull them over, they can say, ‘Oh no sir, you didn’t see me sending a text. You observed me dialing a phone number,’ which is not against the law. And when you go to prove they weren’t, it’s your word against theirs,” state Commissioner of Public Safety Marshal Fisher said. The penalty isn't exactly stiff either. It's $100 and the citation doesn't go on the offender's driving record.

It should. It's abundantly clear that some people are not going to change bad behavior on their own.

Almost half of drivers in the state used a handheld device behind the wheel, according to a 2017 survey.

Those drivers aren't just putting themselves at risk. They share the road with other drivers and they often have passengers as they weave down the road for the sake of sending one more "lol" or "omg."

That's one reason Mississippi also has the highest number of children, per capita, killed in crashes.

Yet, the Mississippi Legislature has been reluctant to take the phones from anyone's hands even when behind the wheel. Lawmakers, it seems, don't want to quit using their phone with one hand while driving with the other.

They, like most drivers, know it's not safe. But they do it anyway. About 88 percent of the time, according to one survey of more than 3 million drivers. They're sure nothing bad will happen to them. We expect a Wisconsin mother thought the same as she sped along, police said, sending Facebook messages, including one that said "Meet you for lunch later." Her daughter and two nieces died in the crash that happened seconds later. She was acquitted. Her attorney blamed bad tires, not distracted driving. A juror said she thought the mother had suffered enough.

Those emergencies when a text message or call is worth the risk are rare. The stakes couldn't be higher.

And we shouldn't have to have government, figuratively, hold our hands. But with about four out of five drivers putting themselves and our loved ones at risk, we have to. Those forward-thinkers in the Legislature who have seen the light should spend the next few months getting their colleagues to take phones out of the hands of people behind the wheel.

The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.
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