A 9-year-old Columbus girl has started a petition asking motorists to refrain from texting while driving.
Her plea: “Keep me alive, don’t text and drive.”
Kila Seaver, who attends Southside Elementary School, said she decided to make a petition and posters about texting and driving to increase awareness about the dangerous practice.
She said her inspiration came after a friend’s sister died in a car accident involving a driver using a cellphone.
Her mother said the petition also might have stemmed, in part, from a few close calls she has had with distracted drivers.
“I’ve almost been hit a couple of times (with Kila in the car), and we always noticed that those people were distracted by using their phones,” Angela Seaver said.
She said her daughter’s initiative has hit home and has increased her own awareness of distracted driving.
“(Before this) I was one of those who would be preoccupied on my phone,” she said.
“I didn’t realize the impact that me picking up the phone while driving had on her, and it’s really changed me and her dad. Neither of us have touched our phones in the car since then.”
3 years under texting law
Indiana’s law prohibiting texting and driving marks its third anniversary July 1.
As a follow-up to the 2010 law banning cellphone use while driving for anyone under the age of 18, the texting-and-driving law was signed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels in May 2011 and took effect that July.
It prohibits drivers from operating a vehicle in motion from using a phone or electronic device to send or read a text message or email.
However, the law does not prevent drivers from using cellphones to make calls, from typing in phone numbers or from using other smartphone applications. It also does not give police officers the ability to confiscate a driver’s phone to confirm if that person had been texting or sending an email.
Maj. Todd Noblitt of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department said he isn’t sure how many texting-and-driving tickets the sheriff’s department has issued since 2011, calling the number “very minimal, if any.”
Lt. Matt Myers of the Columbus Police Department had a similar assessment regarding texting-and-driving tickets issued by city police.
“None were given out by Columbus Police in the last two years,” Myers said. “Maybe one or two, if that many, (have been issued) since 2011.”
The specific number of accidents in Bartholomew County caused by texting or sending emails is unknown, but police officials think that number is substantial.
“You probably see a high percentage of accidents caused by use of a cellphone,” Myers said. “I think it contributes a lot more than we probably know.”
Noblitt said cellphone use in general, not just texting while driving, is a major cause of vehicle accidents.
“We’ve had numerous accidents we investigated where the driver says they were distracted by using their cellphone,” he said.
The lack of enforceability of the law has been an issue for officers.
“It is an extremely tough law to enforce,” Noblitt said. “There is absolutely no way a police officer can know what they (drivers) are doing.”
Part of the problem is the law differs depending on the driver’s age.
“The most difficult part about enforcing the texting-and-driving law in Indiana is that it is not illegal for someone 18 years of age or older to use their cellphone while driving,” Indiana State Police Sgt. Noel Houze said.
In 2010, the year before the law went into effect, Indiana State Police linked 1,103 car crashes to cellphone use, including four fatalities.
Violation of the law is considered a Class C infraction, for which the maximum penalty is a fine of up to $500.
However, in the first two years of the law, Houze estimated that fewer than 400 state motorists were ticketed for the infraction.
Mixed legislative support
State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, voted for the implementation of the original texting-and-driving law in 2011 and said he is thinking about introducing a bill during the upcoming legislative session to start the conversation on how to clarify the law and make it easier for officers to enforce.
“I want to do anything I can to decrease the number of accidents caused by distracted driving,” he said.
Smith said he has participated in multiple conversations with local police officers about what aspects of the current texting-and-driving law need to be altered and what should be added — changes that would give officers greater ability to make distracted-driving arrests.
State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, sees the issue differently. He did not support the texting-and-driving law when it was up for vote in the Senate during the 2011 legislative session.
“I thought there were already laws on the books to prevent distracted driving,” Walker said.
Instead of changing the law, Walker said, the state should increase education on the risks of texting and driving.
“I don’t know that more laws will help,” he said. “People don’t just stop behavior because it’s illegal. They just find new ways to avoid detection.”
Kila Seaver’s grass-roots campaign is one such effort to increase awareness.
A few days before the end of the school year, Angela Seaver entered her daughter’s bedroom one night and saw her making the signs.
“She said she wanted the kids to teach the adults to stop texting and driving because it causes accidents,” Angela Seaver said.
So Kila hung the posters on walls around her school and encouraged students to educate adults about the dangers of texting and driving.
In the short time Kila publicized her petition, she acquired about 20 signatures from students and teachers.
“My teachers said they weren’t going to text and drive, and the younger kids said they were going to tell adults to not text and drive,” the girl said.
Although Kila said she is not sure if she will continue her petition when school resumes in the fall, her mother believes doing so would be worthwhile.