Last Thursday, the Rhode Island House of Representatives approved legislation that bans drivers from sending or reading a text message while behind the wheel. The bill, which the Rhode Island Senate had already approved, will now pass before Governor Carcieri, who is expected to sign it into law. Those caught texting while driving could face fines of up to $85 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense, and $125 for a third offense, providing the state with a potential source of ample revenue.
The bill is sponsored by Representative Peter Kilmartin, a Democrat from Pawtucket. Supporters of the legislation point to the automobile accidents that texting has caused. A study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute revealed that in a span of six seconds, a driver sending or receiving text messages spends 4.6 of those seconds with his eyes off the road. The study concluded that texting is the most dangerous of all cell phone related activities while driving.
In 2001, Kilmartin sponsored legislation banning the use of any handheld electronic device while driving, which then-Governor Lincoln C. Almond vetoed. This time around, the bill outlaws reading and writing text messages while driving, but does not ban drivers from making phone calls. Critics of the bill questioned this omission during the House debate; several House members suggested that the bill should completely ban the use of cell phones while driving.
But Kilmartin sees the bill as a crucial step in an incomplete process. “I would love to have included banning handheld cell phones at a minimum, but I realize this is a 10-year effort, and if we can get the most egregious offense out of the way at this time I’m happy doing that,” he told the Providence Journal.
Sargeant Paul Zienowicz, Commanding Officer of the Providence Police Department’s Traffic Bureau, supports the bill’s current form. “My personal feeling as a policeman for 20 years and as a person who’s been driving for many more than that, yes, texting is more dangerous. Texting involves taking at least one hand off of the wheel. It also involves averting your eyes off the roadway.”
Zienowicz added that though there are at least three different boxes on accident report forms—Distracted, Not Distracted, Distracted by Electronic Device—drivers do not always admit to having used an electronic device. He predicts that the law will be as difficult to enforce as texting-related accidents have been to document.