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Senate May Move to Ban Texting While Driving

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By Brian Kumnick on July 29, 2009 6:49 PM

Legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate today would effectively impose a national prohibition on texting while driving. Referred to as the ALERT Act, the legislation, sponsored by four Senate Democrats (Charles Schumer of New York, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina), would require the Department of Transportation to devise a penalty scheme for texting-and-driving offenses and would then require states to enact laws implementing the scheme.

The legislation follows the familiar example of previous federal laws raising the minimum drinking age, requiring seat-belt use, and imposing a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. In order to regulate automotive-safety issues like these that are clearly within the authority of the individual states, Congress resorts to an indirect route, telling the states that unless they enact the laws that Congress wants, federal funding for highway projects will be withheld.
The states may not like being told what to do in this manner, but courts have made clear that such actions are constitutional, allowing the federal government to impose national regulations relating to road safety.

And in this case, Congress can point to lots of recent news to justify its actions. Recent mass-transit accidents like May's Boston T collision have been blamed on texting operators. (Senator Schumer has introduced separate legislation this week specifically addressing mass transit and texting). And this week the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute published a study indicating that texting truck drivers are 23 times more likely to have accidents. All this leaves the public fairly receptive to having Congress try to impose texting bans.

A nationwide texting-while-driving ban would augment bans already in place in 14 states, plus the District of Columbia.