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Mississippi House rejects texting-while-driving ban in closing moments of 2014 session

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JACKSON, Mississippi — The state House says it's OK, so Mississippi drivers can text away.

House members killed a texting-while-driving ban Wednesday night on a voice vote in the closing minutes of the 2014 Legislature.

The House and Senate had passed House Bill 484 Tuesday by wide margins, and Gov. Phil Bryant had said he would sign it.

But Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, made a procedural motion late Wednesday that let House members vote on the bill again. The measure would have banned drivers from writing, sending or reading text messages or reading or posting on social media using a mobile phone. It set a fine of $25 per violation until July 1, 2015 and $100 after that.

Supporters of a proposed texting ban were furious that the bill had been rejected, saying lives would remain unnecessarily at risk on Mississippi's roadways as a result.

Denny said that when he voted for the bill Tuesday, he thought the ban covered only drivers under 18 and asked the House to reject the bill. He also echoed the arguments of longtime Mississippi opponents who say texting while driving is no worse than other forms of distracted driving, such as eating or adjusting the radio. They're loath for lawmakers to restrict individual freedom.

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, also asked House members to reject the bill, saying a texting ban would lead to unjustified traffic stops by police officers.

"This will be used as another pretext," Blackmon, who has argued against racial profiling in the past, told the House Wednesday.

Proponents of the ban were indignant, saying the vote wrecked what was already a compromise in which fines would start low and tickets would count only as civil offenses.

"It's just ridiculous that one person has killed a bill that was going to affect the lives of children and adults across the state," Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, said Wednesday

Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, said he's been seeking a texting ban for five years. He said he would try again next year, and said a ban needs to apply to adults as well as children.

"I've been to funerals; I've been to hospitals," Hudson said Thursday. "I've had family members injured and I've had friends killed."

Mississippi is one of seven states where texting isn't banned for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The state does ban texting for certain drivers under 18.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that drivers' risk of crashing increases by four times when they are talking on a phone, and says the increase may be greater when a driver is texting.

The auto insurer-funded institute has found in two studies that although phone use goes down after telephoning or texting is banned, crashes don't decline. Russ Rader, spokesman for the institute, said Thursday that researchers aren't sure why crashes didn't drop.

Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said that he believed bans would eventually prove effective.

"It sends a very clear message to drivers that texting while driving isn't acceptable," Adkins said Thursday. "Common sense tells us anything we can do to reduce phone use behind the wheel is a good thing."


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