Send a clear message

Penalties for texting while driving should match the severity and danger

About 2,700 young people die in the United States annually as a result of driving under the influence of alcohol and more than 10 times that many are injured. Those who are caught driving while intoxicated in Oregon face a $4,000 fine and loss of their driver's license.

More than 3,000 young people died in one year in the United States as the result of texting while driving and 10 times that many were injured. Those caught texting and driving in Oregon face a $110 fine.

Something in those two paragraphs doesn't make sense — and it's obviously the discrepancy in penalties. While drinking and driving is dealt with fairly harshly (and with increasingly tough penalties for additional offenses), the equally dangerous, and growing, practice of texting while driving warrants only a slap on the wrist.

The fatality figures cited above come from researchers at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New York. They were reported in a May 10 story in the Mail Tribune, along with several other distressing statistics:

  • According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 100,000 drivers nationwide are texting at any given time during daylight hours.
  • Out of nearly 9,000 teenagers surveyed, 49 percent of boys admitted to having texted while driving; 45 percent of girls did as well.
  • This is not a risk that necessarily improves with age. Fifty-eight percent of 18-year-olds said they had texted while driving. The rate did go down for adults, but a smaller California survey found that one-third of adults ages 30 to 64 acknowledged texting while driving.

The dangers of texting and driving obviously are not limited to teens, but it is clearly a problem of huge proportions with that population. It does not, however, carry the kind of social implications that drinking and driving do — many young drivers are often rather proud of their ability to text and drive, while few would brag about their drunken driving prowess.

In truth, texting and driving is every bit as dangerous as drinking and driving. All the public service announcements in the world, however, won't drive that point home. What will connect with texting drivers are penalties similar to those handed down to drinking drivers.

The state Legislature has taken a step in the right direction with Senate Bill 9, which has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is now before Ways and Means. The bill would increase penalties for texting and driving to $1,000, which is good as far as it goes.

But we don't think it goes far enough. Texting and driving is just as dangerous — and perhaps more so because of the number of drivers involved — as drinking and driving. If a DUII will get your license suspended, so, too, should a TWD.

Beyond that, the state needs to get the attention of young drivers. While a significantly larger fine will do that to a degree, the prospect of losing their driving privileges would amplify that understanding. Teenagers may be overly attached to their cellphones, but they are also attached to their cars. A public service campaign that lets them know they are in danger of losing their licenses would make a connection that the threat of a fine alone doesn't do.

We support the Legislature's effort to increase the penalties for people who text and drive. But we also would encourage legislators to make the penalty even tougher, in recognition of the real danger the offense creates.

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