During the 2014 session of the Mississippi Legislature, lawmakers approved a ban on sending a text message while driving a vehicle. It was a common-sense restriction on a dangerous practice — so of course the Legislature changed its mind. The House killed the bill on the final day of the session.
The text-messaging bill made allies out of unusual opposites. Conservative Republicans, who originally supported the bill but then said they thought the ban only would apply to drivers under 18, joined forces against the bill with black Democrats, who feared police would use the new law as one more excuse to stop and search black drivers.
Texting while driving is sure to be in the news during this year’s session. At least seven bills have been filed to ban the practice. Whether they will become law is anybody’s guess. Mississippi is historically slow to approve such changes. Republicans who oppose measures like this as an intrusion into personal liberty — similar to seat belt laws — should look at the issue differently.
Text messaging is a lengthy distraction, something that typically takes a lot longer than changing a radio station. If a driver only put himself at risk by sending a text message, that would be fine. The problem is that texting puts other motorists as risk of a collision.
Sending a text message while driving impairs a motorist’s ability to operate a vehicle properly. How different is that from driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs? But nobody’s claiming that someone who’s had too much beer or whiskey should have the liberty to get behind a steering wheel.
As for the concerns of black lawmakers, it is obvious from several high-profile events last year that relationships with many law enforcement agencies need work. Shame on any officer who would use text messaging as a reason to profile any driver. However, it seems better to risk a few unfair police stops than to ignore a public hazard and allow a few wrecks caused by somebody who was sending a text message while driving.
Hopefully the Legislature will see the light this year and approve the text-message ban.