If we haven’t done it ourselves, we’ve seen other drivers texting or using their smartphones. Distracted driving is crazy while speeding on freeways, and it’s dangerous on neighborhood streets.
We appear to have a heartbreaking lesson in Sacramento. While riding his bicycle Sunday, a new immigrant who helped the U.S. military in Afghanistan was struck and killed by a driver who may have been texting. Mustafa Rafi’s wife buried him Tuesday in a cardboard box, all she could afford.
Federal safety officials call distracted driving a “dangerous epidemic.” It’s a factor in about 80 percent of all crashes and blamed for more than 3,100 deaths and 424,000 injuries in 2013.
Yet, state highway safety officials said Tuesday that nearly 1 in 10 California drivers were talking or texting during an annual survey, a startling 39 percent jump in the last year. The Department of Motor Vehicles is doing its own study on distracted driving.
It’s apparent that public education campaigns aren’t working well enough (did you know that April was distracted driving awareness month?), and that existing penalties aren’t a big enough deterrent.
It’s illegal in California to read, write or send a text, email or instant message while behind the wheel. Getting caught means a $20 fine for a first offense and $50 for repeat violations – the same as talking on a cellphone that isn’t hands-free. With court costs, a first offense actually costs $76 and a second $190, according to the DMV.
While adult drivers can use a hands-free device to text, drivers under 18 are not allowed to use any device. Under a court ruling, however, drivers can use their phone’s GPS or other mapping feature, even if it isn’t hands-free.
The Legislature has tried to toughen the laws on texting. In 2011, it passed a bill to increase the fine to $50 for a first offense and $100, plus a point on driving records, for subsequent violations. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it. Last year, legislators passed another bill to add a point for texting. Brown blocked that one as well.
We get why the governor vetoed the bills. There’s too much nickel-and-diming of Californians, particularly those of modest means.
But with the rise in distracted driving, lawmakers and the governor ought to take another look.
Whatever laws are on the books, it comes down to us. Is a text or tweet that you won’t remember the next day really worth the risk of a life-changing tragedy?