REPUBLICANS who control the Oklahoma House of Representatives don't want to tell people how to live their lives, unless they do want to tell people how to live their lives.
On the one hand, House leaders are OK with drivers reading and sending text messages; to do otherwise would trample on their personal rights. At the same time, they don't want to give Oklahoma municipalities the right to set their own anti-smoking laws.
The House Calendar Committee last week put the brakes on a bill that would ban text-messaging while driving. The committee can vote again in the next few weeks to send House Bill 1503 to the full House, but those prospects appear dim given Speaker T.W. Shannon's strong opposition.
Shannon, R-Lawton, said distracted driving is already against the law in Oklahoma, and that there's no difference between texting at the wheel and applying makeup or changing music on an iPod or shaving. “There is a slippery slope argument to be made (about) what people are doing inside their cars, especially as technology changes so quickly,” Shannon said.
This argument has been used regularly since efforts began several years ago to curb text-messaging. These efforts have mostly been for naught. Lawmakers in 2010 agreed to ban texting for new young drivers, but the restrictions last for only a few months. House Republican leaders seem to believe that's adequate.
We're struck by studies reflecting how dangerous text-messaging at the wheel can be. The U.S. Department of Transportation says drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident than those who aren't texting. This helps explain why a majority of states — 39, at last count — have banned the practice. Former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry grasped the seriousness of this issue when he signed an executive order in 2010 prohibiting state employees from texting while driving. The federal government also bans the practice for its employees.
Chuck Mai, vice president of public affairs for AAA Oklahoma, makes the point that current statutes regarding distracted driving are secondary offenses. Under HB 1503, texting at the wheel would give police cause to make a traffic stop. “It's preventive medicine,” Mai said. Using the slippery slope analogy, would today's Republicans have opposed vehicle child restraints because child endangerment was already against the law?
What's particularly puzzling about the anti-texting bill is the apparent lack of organized opposition to the idea. Indeed, the Department of Public Safety, the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office and several police departments are among the groups that comprise Drive Aware Oklahoma, a coalition pushing for the anti-texting legislation. These are groups that would be responsible for enforcing the law, and they're for it.
On the other hand, tobacco companies were strongly opposed to the idea of allowing municipalities in Oklahoma to approve their own anti-smoking laws. This certainly contributed to the demise this session of a Senate bill that sought to do just that. The issue, which has been promoted the past several years, is now apparently dead in the Legislature until 2015.
Our hope is that the anti-texting bill isn't dead and instead has just been put on silent for a time.