Few would disagree that drunk driving is extremely dangerous for both the drunk driver and any surrounding cars on the road. But while driving under the influence is a punishable offense, another activity that can be just as dangerous has long been regarded as totally acceptable. That activity is texting. A bill to ban texting while on the road is currently making its way through Michigan’s House of Representatives. This bill could be worthwhile, but if the state legislature really wants to curb texting it will be wary of passing a law that broadly empowers law enforcement and instead concentrate on a media campaign instructing drivers not to text.

If State Rep. Lee Gonzales’s (D-Flint) bill becomes law, Michigan would be the 19th state to pass legislation that bans concurrent texting and driving. The bill initially called for texting while driving to be a secondary offense. But since then, the bill has been changed to treat it as a primary offense, meaning that a police officer doesn’t need a separate reason to pull over a driver who is texting.

It’s good that the legislature has finally taken up this debate. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that drivers using a cell phone are four times more likely to cause an accident. The same study cited cell phone drivers as just as likely to cause accidents as drivers with a .08 blood alcohol content level (the minimum BAC for a DUI). And texting is certainly more dangerous than just talking on the phone because it requires a person to actually look at the phone while driving.

Though the legislature should act on this issue, it would be wise to reconsider the initial bill. Classifying texting as a primary offense gives police too much leeway to pull over drivers who may be driving in a safe manner while simply on the phone or to purposely construe anything a driver might have been holding as a phone. This should not be left up to the officer’s discretion. The best law would be one that punishes texters who are speeding or driving erratically by giving them an extra fine or points.

But rather than counting on stricter laws to curb the problem of texting while driving, state agencies should enact a statewide media campaign that highlights the dangers and publicizes the new law. Ultimately, it will be the perceived threat of punishment rather than the actual severity of the punishment that reduces how much texting people in the state are doing while driving. Just like the state police’s highly publicized “Click It or Ticket” program to emphasize the need for seatbelts, spreading awareness is the real key to addressing the texting issue.

Establishing concurrent texting and driving as a secondary offense — and launching an accompanying publicity program — is a good way to make Michigan’s roads safer. And who knows, the quality of texts might end up improving now that people will have to pull over to text, they might actually have the time and patience not to omit the vowels.

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