Is texting while driving as bad as driving while drunk? The answer is yes in Utah if either act results in the death of someone else. The Utah legislature passed a law that could send a texter to prison for up to 15 years. But is it right to equate the two crimes?
The law, which went into effect in May, is the toughest in the nation against texting while driving. It treats an offender just as if they were getting behind the wheel of a car after drinking.
“It’s a willful act,” Lyle Hillyard, a Republican state senator told The New York Times. "If you choose to drink and drive or if you choose to text and drive, you’re assuming the same risk.”
The Utah law could be the first of many to hit the books, as states deal with the growing dangers of texting while driving. Some studies say just talking on a cellphone while driving is as risky as someone driving with .08 blood alcohol level. And texting is twice as risky as that.
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(Read a full report on texting while driving on OpposingViews.com: Texting While Driving is Dangerous; Should it be Illegal?)
The law is in response to a 2006 crash that killed two scientists. 19-year-old Reggie Shaw was texting behind the wheel when he crossed the double yellow line of a two lane highway. He clipped the men's oncoming car, which then spun out and was hit by a pickup truck.
Shaw pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide, a misdeamenor. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and a requirement that he read “Les Misérables” to learn, like the book’s character Jean Valjean, how to make a contribution to society.
Shaw started making that contribution in February, when he spoke to the state House Subcommittee on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, which was considering a ban on texting while driving. The measure seemed likely to fail given the legislature’s lack of interest in previous such efforts. Then Shaw spoke:
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“I was the one driving and texting,” Shaw said through tears. “Excuse me. I apologize. I didn’t know the dangers.”
Terryl Warner, a local victim’s advocate who pushed for the law, said that moment was a turning point. “Before he spoke, some legislators were talking and texting,” she recalled. “After he started talking, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”
The law calls for someone caught texting and driving to face up to three months in jail and up to a $750 fine. If they cause injury or death, the punishment can grow to a felony and up to a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison.
Texting while driving is just plain stupid. But so is eating while driving, putting on makeup while driving, or disciplining the kids while driving. And no one is saying those things are just as bad as drinking and driving. Certainly banning texting while driving is a state's right. But punishing someone so severely? Did Utah go overboard in reaction to this tragic crash? Or is taking a life taking a life, regardless of the dumb act that caused a person to lose control of their car, and thus the punishment should be the same?