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With proposals to make penalties for texting while driving more like the sanctions for drunken driving, Arkansas joins a growing number of states searching for responses to a sharp rise in traffic fatalities, thousands of which are attributed to distracted driving.

"It's pretty clear it's a problem," said state Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock. "The statistics are out there. We need to get folks' attention and eyes back on the road."

Bond has filed two bills that would beef up penalties if a violation of a 2009 law banning drivers from using "a hand-held wireless telephone for wireless interactive communication while operating a motor vehicle" results in a crash.

Under Senate Bill 144, people who violate the law would be subject to an additional fine of not less than $150 and no more than $1,000 if the violation causes a crash. Fines would rise for subsequent offenses, including three or more that would open violators to a fine of up to $5,000 if they happen within five years of a first offense.

[FATAL WRECKS: Complete coverage of deadly crashes in Arkansas]

Violators also will face a yearlong suspension of their drivers' licenses, although they may be able to qualify for a restricted-driving permit to and from work or school if the license suspension poses an "extreme and unusual hardship."

"We're trying to bring to light how dangerous this conduct is," Bond said. "Increasing the penalties when it does happen lets people know it's serious, like a driving under the influence, because that is essentially what it is.

"You're not looking at the road, you might as well be under the influence. You're distracted. It's the same thing as being under the influence or near the same thing."

Senate Bill 145 goes even further and would make the violation of the 2009 law an element of the state's felony negligent-homicide statute if the crash involved a death. Motorists can face that charge now if they cause the death of someone else as a result of operating a vehicle while intoxicated, while passing a school bus or while fatigued.

The first bill faced a flurry of questions at its first look in the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday, prompting Bond to refine it further.

They were "good questions," Bond said. "It's a difficult area of the law. People want to maintain a certain amount of liberty but also discourage the conduct of not paying attention. It's just a matter of getting the language right."

Bond, who is an attorney, was spurred to file the bills by news reports about a sharp upturn in fatal traffic crashes.

After falling to a 50-year low in 2014, roadway deaths in Arkansas saw a 17 percent spike over the past two years, going from 466 in 2014 to 547 in 2016. The latter year's numbers are preliminary and usually end up higher by the time the numbers are verified.

The increase in road fatalities coincides with a rise nationally as Americans drive more than ever, thanks to relatively inexpensive fuel prices and a drop in unemployment.

Meanwhile, convictions under the 2009 Arkansas law remain static, averaging a little more than 300 annually over the past three years, according to data from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

Last year, Baylee Stracener of Cabot was one of 150 females (versus 177 males) ticketed for texting while driving. Her age, 21, fell in the 20-30 age group that received the most tickets in Arkansas, 163.

She had just left a class on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro about 5 p.m. on a February day and had pulled up to a stoplight and used the time spent idling to look at her phone.

"While I was stopped, I thought I was OK," she said. "I wasn't putting anyone in danger."

Still, the ticket cost Stracener a $100 fine and another $75 in court costs. That was enough for her.

"This one offense opened my eyes to how dangerous it is and not worth it," she said. "I could've waited until I got home."

No jurisdiction had more distracted-driving convictions -- 28 -- than Jonesboro District Court in Arkansas last year. Second was Conway District Court with 24. By contrast, Little Rock District Court had two.

Other states already are beefing up their sanctions for distracted driving. Violators of Louisiana's's version of the law face fines of up to $500 for social-media use or texting while driving under a bill signed into law last year. Previously, the fine was $175. Fines go up to $1,000 for additional violations.

AAA, the national automobile travel organization, supports bans on texting while driving, but a spokesman said stiff fines might make it more difficult to prosecute.

"The consequences should be commensurate with the dangers of the violation," said Mike Right, the public affairs vice president for the AAA chapter in Missouri, which includes Arkansas.

He likes what he has heard of the Arkansas legislation, which imposes the sanctions when a crash is involved.

"They need to be dealt with much more severely," Right said. "Engaging your communication, your vision and your dexterity -- you can't do that and operate a motor vehicle safely. Obviously, they failed to get the message."

Bond said he doubts Arkansas is ready to adopt legislation that took effect in California earlier this month. It bans drivers from even holding a mobile phone while driving.

It went into effect just as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released new statistics showing that 272 teenagers died in 2015 in crashes tied to distracted driving. They also show that 3,263 of the 3,477 people killed in such crashes that year had been distracted while driving.

"We may go back and file that," Bond said. "It won't pass. That was the reason it wasn't filed initially. Rep. Hendren has been fighting cellphone issues for a long time," referring to Kim Hendren, R-Gravette.

"I think there are 14 states that ban the use of hand-held phones and require hands-free," Bond said. "It's just a difficult area. I think the research shows it's better to go hands-free, but it's still a distraction."

A Section on 01/28/2017

Print Headline: 2 bills hit at texting by drivers

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