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We need real consequences for texting and driving

December 20, 2017 by Steven M. Gursten

Bills by Sen. Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) & Sen. O’Brien (R-Portage) propose jail, fines and driver’s license points as consequences for texting and driving

Bills propose harsher consequences for texting and driving

Texting and driving has been responsible for the big spike we’ve seen in car accidents around Metro Detroit. It’s high time that the consequences for texting and driving get a lot tougher, too.

Distracted driving-related fatalities, injuries and the overall number of car accidents have all increased in Michigan, yet the penalties for texting while driving have remained unchanged.

Worse yet, law enforcement of the existing law we do have is minimal. As a car accident lawyer, I only see police checking cellphones of drivers after a car accident if a fatality has occurred. Thousands and thousands of rear-enders and other accidents that result in injury – but not wrongful death – of someone involved in a car crash are never investigated by law enforcement to determine if distracted driving played a role in the causing the crash.

As the dangers posed by distracted driving continue to worsen by the year, it’s time that we consider upping the ante on deterrence and enforcement.

We’ve all heard the expression that the penalty should fit the crime.

But when it comes to the consequences for texting and driving, they currently don’t.

Even though research has shown texting while driving to be more dangerous than drunk driving, its punishment in Michigan isn’t anywhere near as severe the punishment for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Changes coming for the consequences for texting and driving?

That could change under bills by Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) and Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) which propose jail time, stiff fines and points on a person’s driving record for deadly and serious-injury-related violations of the texting ban.

Specifically, in Rep. Knezek’s Senate Bill 581, he proposes that:

  • Texting drivers who kill someone can go to prison for up to 5 five years, be fined $2,000 or both.
  • Texting drivers who cause “serious impairment of a body function” to someone can go to jail for up to one year, be fined $500 or both.

Similarly, in Rep. O’Brien’s Senate Bill 670, she proposes that:

  • Texting drivers who kill or cause “serious impairment of body function” to someone will get six (6) points on their driving record.

Yes, I will be the first to admit I have a personal stake in this.

As a car accident lawyer, I see every day the tragedy that texting drivers and distracted drivers leave in their wakes – innocent victims who have lost loved ones and/or who are surviving life-altering, life-long injuries. Later this week, I am going to visit the home of a family who lost a loved one to a driver in Chicago who was texting and driving and never saw her crossing the street right in front of him. I’ve honestly now lost track of how many of my cases have involved texting and driving. I teach auto accident lawyers how to download cellphone data at legal seminars around the country, including here in Michigan, so we can do a better job of uncovering evidence of distracted driving.  This is very real to me.

As for SB 581’s and SB 670’s proposed penalties for texting while driving, I’m all for them … and any other penalties that may discourage this dangerous, deadly and reckless behavior that is destroying so many lives.

What are the existing consequences for texting and driving under Michigan law?

Although Michigan’s texting prohibition is laudable, the penalties are laughable (no wonder the danger is getting worse):

  • Violation of the texting ban is a “civil infraction.”
  • First offender fine is $100.
  • Second or subsequent offender fine is $200. (MCL 257.602b(6))

No points are currently assessed for violation of the texting ban.

Have harsher consequences for texting and driving already been proposed in Michigan?

In March 2017, Rep. Martin Howrylak (R-Troy) introduced his Distracted Driving bill, House Bill 4466, which proposed the following:

  • Impose a $250 fine for first offenders.
  • Impose a $500 fine for second or subsequent offender.
  • Put 1 point on the driving record of a second-time offender.
  • Put 2 points on the driving record of a third or subsequent offender.

Notably, in Rep. Howrylak’s HB 4466, he proposes to ban forms of dangerous driving that go beyond texting-while-driving, such as using a phone to text, conduct Internet searches, watch videos and play games.

How else will bills that propose new consequences for texting and driving change what’s prohibited by Michigan’s texting ban?

Michigan doesn’t have a “distracted driving” law, per se.

The closest we have is our ban on texting while driving, which prohibits the following:

“[A] person shall not read, manually type, or send a text message on a wireless 2-way communication device that is located in the person’s hand or in the person’s lap, including a wireless telephone used in cellular telephone service or personal communication service, while operating a motor vehicle that is moving on a highway or street in this state.” (MCL 257.602b(1))

 Under SB 581, the types of “wireless 2-way communication device[s]” to which the texting ban applies would include “a computer, tablet device, camera, or other internet-based communication device …”

How bad is the situation that SB 581’s and SB 670’s proposed consequences for texting and driving are necessary?

Data from the Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information Center and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveal that:

  • Distracted driving-related fatalities in Michigan increased 100% from 14 in 2014 to 28 in 2015.
  • Distracted driving-related injuries in Michigan increased 44% from 2,401 in 2014 to 3,472 in 2015.
  • Distracted driving-related car accidents in Michigan increased 40% from 5,353 in 2014 to 7,516 in 2015.
  • Nearly 3,500 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015 alone.

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