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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Governor plans to stress distracted driving in his 2020 legislative agenda

Texting while driving is dangerous. And, in Indiana, it is against the law.

Effective July 1, 2011, it became illegal to type, transmit or read e-mail or text messages on a communication device while driving in the Hoosier state. Violators face fines up to $500 if they get caught.

So what will be Gov. Eric Holcomb’s intent in putting distracted driving high on his list of issues for his 2020 Indiana legislative agenda? An editorial in Saturday’s Terre Haute Tribune-Star said Holcomb unveiled his agenda in that southern Indiana city Dec. 10, saying he plans to target those who use hand-held devices to text, tweet or navigate.

Holcomb hasn’t presented a specific proposal yet, but he would reportedly expand the list of distracted driving violations to include all cellphone usage.

“When you’re looking at that phone, you’re not looking somewhere that you should be,” Holcomb said in announcing his plans. “It’s those things that distract you from what you’re doing, and that’s driving.”

Indiana Code 9-21-8-59 specifically bans a person operating a moving motor vehicle from using “a telecommunications device” to “type a text message or an electronic mail message; transmit a text message or an electronic mail message; or read a text message or an electronic mail message.”

But the fact is, for most Indiana motorists, there are no restrictions on talking on a cellphone while driving. However, for drivers who are under age 21, it is illegal to use a cellphone while operating a vehicle. The only exception is for making 9-1-1 calls. And the texting and email ban doesn’t apply to motorists using hands-free or voice-operated technology.

It will be interesting to see what the governor’s proposal will include. There are plenty of other ways motorists become distracted while they are driving besides using their hand-held devices — lighting a cigarette, eating a hamburger, drinking, changing stations on the car radio, putting on makeup, talking to passengers or reading a map, for example.

The signs you are being distracted while driving is if you are not looking at the road, even for mere seconds, your hands aren’t on the wheel and you are not focused strictly on driving.

Enforcing the distracted driving law is difficult. Although the numbers have slowly escalated each year, tickets and warnings for using cellphones while driving pale in comparison with total traffic citations, according to the Indiana State Police.

And the law will not allow police to confiscate a motorist’s phone and look to see what was being done with it, nor can they keep it as evidence or download information from the phone. So it is difficult to prove an infraction of the law unless the driver admits it.

And in some cases it may not be texting. Drivers may be on Instagram, or FaceTiming, or watching Netflix or YouTube, or playing games. None of those activities are currently illegal, which is why several states have moved to get phones out of drivers’ hands altogether. Police then would have a clearer interpretation of the law and could start enforcing it with consequences.

The Tribune-Star pointed to statistics from transportation agencies that show there really is a problem:

* More than 37,000 lives were lost on U.S. roads in 2016, an increase of 5.6 percent from 2015.

* 10 percent of fatal crashes and 15 percent of injury crashes in 2015 were distraction-related.

* Distracted driving crashes are under-reported, and it is estimated that cellphone use alone accounted for 27 percent of 2015 car crashes.

So it’s good on the one hand that our governor wants to emphasize the importance of highway safety by trying to get a handle on curbing distracted driving. But it’s troubling on the other hand to realize that enforcement is so difficult and that such regulations increase government’s role in legislating personal conduct.

But as we wrote in an editorial in 2016, even with scant enforcement, a law is valuable if it keeps the idea of “dangerous practice” in the public consciousness. The “buckle up” campaign has been so successful that most drivers fasten their seat belts every trip without even thinking about it.

If only drivers would exercise the same common sense by waiting till they park the car to engage in activities that could endanger their lives and the lives of others while driving.

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