Observed on southbound U.S. 131 outside Kalamazoo on Monday afternoon: a red tractor-semitrailer truck traveling at 70 mph and weaving on and off the road.
Was the vehicle malfunctioning? Did it have a flat tire? Was the truck driver falling asleep at the wheel? Was he having a seizure?
No to all of the above.
The driver who was weaving on and off the highway, traveling at a high rate of speed and endangering the lives of all motorists in his vicinity, was holding a cell phone on his steering wheel and text messaging while driving the rig.
It seems the height of stupidity that a motorist would engage in such activities while barreling down the highway in any vehicle. But common sense isn’t a prerequisite to obtaining a driver’s license. Too bad.
Now, public sentiment is growing for bans on text messaging while driving. A recent survey by Nationwide Insurance showed that 80 percent of adults would support that legislation. Thus far, 14 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that ban text messaging while driving. Some other states are poised to follow suit.
In Michigan, lawmakers are proposing a bill that would make texting while driving a secondary offense with minimal penalties — a $100 fine and no points.
We certainly can understand the desire to make a statement here, but we’re just not sure what purpose this lukewarm law would serve. If it’s an activity worth banning, it’s worth banning with a big stick. Otherwise, why bother?
Current laws on the books with regard to reckless or careless driving in Michigan give authorities broad discretion, backed up by stiff fines and points, ranging from three to six, toward removal of driving privileges. We don’t see the value in adding some weak secondary offense as an afterthought.
It certainly wouldn’t deter the behavior. In a recent New York Times article about scare tactics being used to deter motorists from texting while driving, Anne T. McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said, “When you look at something like cell phone use or texting, most people already know these behaviors are not safe, but they do them anyway.
“But the challenge in highway safety is that we do unsafe things day after day and don’t end up in a crash, and so I think, over time, people go back to their everyday behaviors.”
That’s sounds like human nature.
And no namby-pamby law is going to get the attention of the motorists who engage in this risky behavior.
Ultimately, tragedy gets their attention.
On Sept. 22, 2006, on a two-lane highway in northern Utah, a 19-year-old college student crossed the yellow dividing line and clipped a car, which spun across the highway and was struck by a pickup truck hauling a trailer filled with two tons of horseshoes and related equipment. The two scientists in the car were killed instantly. The student later tearfully admitted that he had been text messaging at the time of the crash.
Now, under Utah’s law, someone caught texting and driving faces up to three months in jail and up to a $750 fine, a misdemeanor. But if that driver causes injury or death, the punishment can grow to a felony and up to a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison.
The only other state with a tough law on this issue is Alaska. That legislation, passed in 2007, makes it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison if a driver causes a fatal accident when certain
electronic devices are on inside the car and in the driver’s field of vision.
Both states, it should be noted, passed these tough laws in the wake of fatalities on their highways.
We’re not enamored with bulking up the books with weak laws that merely acknowledge a problem in passing. If it’s a problem that merits our lawmakers’ valuable time and attention — and we think the case can be made that it’s worth acting before fatalities occur here — then put something tough on the books.
Then, the state would be empowered to throw that book at the first scofflaw, with the blessing of every responsible motorist on Michigan’s many highways.