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The South Dakota Legislature is about to consider a bill to require what 44 other states already do — make texting while driving a primary offense. Now — like with the seat belt law — it is a secondary offense, meaning a law enforcement officer can’t stop a driver just for texting, which is an everyday occurrence in Rapid City and nationwide.

The current law was approved in the 2014 session after a lengthy debate about the difficulties of enforcing it and whether it was fair to single out texting while driving since it is not unusual to also see drivers eating, grooming or putting on makeup, or serving as a car seat for their dog while behind the wheel. The current fine for texting while driving is $100.

In the past four years, the reach of digital social media has grown considerably as well as Americans' love affair with their phones, which seem to have a firm hold on more people every day — even while they are driving a vehicle that weighs three or more tons.

It is showing up in traffic statistics, as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured every day in crashes involving distracted drivers. In 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association reported that 3,450 people died as a result of distracted driving, which was 9 percent of all fatal crashes. Teenagers were the most likely to be distracted in a fatal crash. Drunken driving crashes, meanwhile, took 10,497 lives in 2016.

And while distracted driving takes into account a number of circumstances, experts point out that cellphone use is clearly the number one culprit. According to the NHTSA, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving during daylight hours.

Distracted driving also can have other serious consequences for the driver. In November, a U.S. District Court judge in Rapid City sentenced a 27-year-old woman to 37 months in prison for her role in an accident that killed one and maimed two others. She was looking at Facebook while traveling on U.S. Highway 18 and plowed into another vehicle. In announcing the sentence, Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken called distracted driving an "enormous risk in modern society."

The current bill, HB1230, reflects those concerns. It would make texting while driving a class two misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500, which should be enough to get the attention of most drivers.

At the same, however, it is less costly than a funeral or serving a prison term for causing the death of an innocent person.

The Legislature needs to get up to speed on this public safety issue and send the message that texting while driving is a crime. If 44 other states can do it, so can South Dakota.

-- Rapid City (S.D.) Journal

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