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Committee approves ban on texting while driving

SANTA FE – Legislation that would outlaw texting while driving unanimously passed a Senate committee on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 19 would allow law enforcement officers to write a citation for drivers seen using cellphones to write or read text messages or other written content while driving or stopped in traffic. The bill, approved on a bipartisan vote in the Senate Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday, calls for a $25 fine for a first offense and a $50 fine for subsequent offenses.

However, the proposal would not prohibit drivers from texting through use of a hands-free, voice-activated device or while safely parked on the side of a roadway. The bill also would not affect use of GPS mapping tools while driving.

“As the technology is being used more and more by all of us, and we all use the text message feature, it’s all the more reason we need to get this on the book and send a clear signal to stop,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, a sponsor of the bill. Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, co-sponsored the bill.

The bill now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Wirth cited statistics that drivers are 23 times more likely to get in an accident while texting. He said New Mexico should join the 41 other states that already have adopted bans on texting while driving.

A similar bill last year advanced to the Senate floor but never was brought to the floor for debate.

“We have had this bill a number of years,” Wirth said. “Over that time period, I think all of us – I certainly speak from my own experience – are seeing this happen more and more. It really is becoming almost prevalent.”

Gov. Susana Martinez has voiced support for the proposed ban on texting and driving and directed the Legislature to consider the legislation during this year’s short session, intended primarily to weigh budgetary issues.

Also voicing support for the texting-while-driving ban Tuesday were the New Mexico State Police, the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association and the state Motor Vehicles Division.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, voiced concern in committee that citing drivers for texting while waiting at a stop light or in traffic could be overkill. He said such situations do not threaten the safety of other drivers and may not warrant the texting restrictions.

“I’m just afraid we may be taking it too far,” Brandt said.

Other committee members countered that drivers willing to send text messages at a stop light are likely to read responses received moments later, after they have started driving again.

Brandt said he supported the proposed legislation to serve as a deterrent, however.

“It’s at least palatable,” Brandt said. “I think it’s a big enough concern, especially for our young people. … I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of texting-while-driving tickets. I think just having it on the books is going to be a huge deterrent for our young people to stop doing it, or at least think twice before they do it.”