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Council pulled plug prematurely on driver texting ban

Council pulled plug prematurely on driver texting ban

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Far be it from us, as laypersons, to tell the police which tools to use to keep the roads safe.

If they say a ban on driving while texting will be next to impossible to enforce, we believe them.

But even the police will acknowledge that just having a law on the books with a stiff penalty is often sufficient deterrent to change behavior for the better.

And when it comes to drivers who text, we think the stakes are high enough that it is better to err on the side of a difficult-to-enforce law than do nothing at all.

Yet that's what happened Tuesday night at the Flagstaff City Council. By an informal 4-3 vote, it cut off any further work by staff on preparing a formal ordinance to take to the council for a public hearing.

We think such an action was premature. It's not as if the proposed ban was coming out of nowhere. It was drawn up by the city's transportation commission, which is made up of everyday citizens from all walks of life who are appointed by the council.

The panel had started with the problem of distracted driving, which police say is the No. 1 cause of motor vehicle accidents. In 2011, 3,331 people in the U.S. were killed and 387,000 were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to a city staff report.

The panel decided to propose a ban only on texting, an activity that requires a shift in mental and visual focus so acute that studies have shown the ability to drive safely is seriously impaired. Talking on a cell phone would still be legal, as would drinking coffee or any number of driver activities that, to a lesser extent, are also distractions.

Would texting be difficult for a police officer following a vehicle to even see, much less distinguish from punching up some numbers on a cell phone? Yes, but issuing citations is not the only aim of such a ban. In the event of an accident, a texting ban would give police new legal leverage in seizing a driver's phone, if necessary, and determining who is at fault. It would affect a driver's record as well as his or her insurance rating, all potential deterrents to a practice that, unfortunately, common sense alone has failed to stop.

Should there be more education about the hazards of texting while driving? Absolutely, starting with teens who are the least experienced drivers -- even though they might think they are accomplished texters and thus invulnerable. We can envision a "Scared Straight" campaign similar to ones used against drunken driving and meth to drive home the message that texting behind the wheel can be just as deadly.

But education and a ban need not be mutually exclusive. Mothers Against Drunk Driving have proved how effective a twin campaign of tougher laws and effective public relations can be, and texting while driving could fit the same mold. If a ban and a scary poster are just the nudges a teen needs to turn off the smartphone and arrive home safely at night, it's worth it.

Another avenue to pursue would be to provide incentives for smartphone makers to provide voice-activated commands on all phones. Perhaps a tax break at the federal or state level is warranted, or discounted purchase coupons at local retailers if the city is really serious about enabling hands-on-the-wheel driving.

We're sure there are other alternatives to texting while driving out there, but if the city council cuts off the process now, it's unlikely any of them will rise to the surface, at least at the municipal level. We urge the council majority to reconsider and direct city staff to prepare an ordinance for a full public hearing.

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