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Politics & Government

Bill to hike fines for texting while driving gets boost from virtual reality

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Gov. Jack Markell (D) experiences a virtual realty simulation Tuesday, showing the dangers of texting while driving.

 

Texting while driving has been cited as the root cause for hundreds of thousands of traffic accidents across the country -- some of them turning deadly.

 

Lawmakers are trying to beef up legal consequences while also educating people to not look at their phones in their cars in the first place.

 

           

Sen. Nicole Poore (D-New Castle) and others put on goggles, headphones and strapped themselves into a virtual reality simulator at Legislative Hall Tuesday.

 

The first thing you see is a first person view of yourself getting into a car, putting it into gear and driving down a suburban street.

 

As you keep driving in the scenario, you dodge bicyclists and you coast through stop signs, all the while continuing to text on your cell phone.

 

“Now I’ve entered onto I-95 and I’ve almost rear ended a pickup truck. [I haven't learned my lesson yet], because I’ve just now smooshed my driver to the left of me,” Poore said.

 

You eventually make it to the city center, nearly hitting parents pushing their children in strollers until you run a stop sign.

 

“I have pulled out into an intersection, the airbag has hit me in the face as the glass has shattered around me and I was reading a text message that said, ‘Should we start the meeting without you?’”

 

AAA Mid-Atlantic and AT&T sponsor the simulator in an effort to get teenagers and adults alike to stop texting while they’re driving.

 

The companies brought it to A.I. DuPont High School in Wilmington and Legislative Hall this week, with AAA Mid-Atlantic lobbying for a bill that doubles fines for drivers caught using their phone.

 

“It’s a very difficult thing to train young people to not do, unless they’ve seen in a family that there’s accidents – people being hurt, killed or whatever,” said House Minority Whip Deborah Hudson (R-Fairthorne), chief sponsor of the bill.

 

She says the virtual reality simulator connects real life consequences to texting while driving – especially for teenagers.

 

The response at the school, Hudson says, was pretty universal.

 

“They were shocked. They said, ‘I can’t imagine this. I only looked down at my phone for one second,’ but apparently, one second, two seconds, three seconds could be the distance of a football field, and in that time, anything could happen," she said.

 

When Delaware banned drivers from using their phones while the car is in motion in 2001 - it was the eighth state in the country to do so.

 

Now, 46 states have similar bans in place.

 

The original $50 fine hasn’t been raised since. Now, the bill would hike it to $100, though the final price will be much higher than that when factoring in court fees and other charges divvied up among state agencies.

 

On the second offense, that fine creeps up to a maximum of $300 and you also start to tack on points on your driving record.

 

Hudson says some people may not be able to pay the fine, but it’s necessary to help curb the deadly habit.

 

“There’s a chance it’s too expensive, but it’s a right to drive on the Delaware state roads and you have a responsibility to drive safely,” she said.

 

The bill has yet to get a committee hearing, but Hudson says she’s planning to move it forward later this year.

 

It's being pushed hard by AAA Mid-Atlantic, which initially wanted points to be put on a person’s driver’s license on the first offense.

 

Collecting a certain amount of points raises a person’s insurance rates and could eventually lead to their license being suspended or revoked.

 

Jim Lardear, public affairs director for the group, says including points in the offense helps people realize how serious the problem is.

 

“You shouldn’t have the first offense in the first place. You shouldn’t have the second offense, and if you’re going to have the second offense, yes, I think points would help people realize that it’s going to cost them. This is not just fun and games, right? It’s not just a small fine you can walk away from," said Lardear. "This is going to have serious consequences.”

 

Last year, nearly 3,200 people were killed and 431,000 were injured in car accidents involving distracted drivers according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

 

The state Office of Highway safety sponsored three coordinated campaign days in 2013, during which police in Delaware issued 385 cell phone use tickets.

 

Gov. Jack Markell (D), an avid cyclist himself says he sees the problem all the time. One of his friends was running one day seven years ago and was killed by a driver who was texting.

 

“I hope [the proposal] goes through and, again, I don’t know if you can have penalties that are high enough when it comes to a bill like this,” Markell said.

 

He also sat through the virtual reality simulator, at times throwing his hands up after almost hitting pedestrians or cyclists

 

Markell says he would sign the bill no matter how high the fine is set at.

 

“If we’re the highest in the region, I don’t care. If we’re the highest in the country, I don’t care. I want us to be the safest.”

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