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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Fatal School Bus Crash Inspires Tougher Penalties For Text-And-Driving

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In December 2014, a Knox County School bus crashed into another school bus killing a teacher’s aide and two students. The driver of bus #44 swerved over a concrete median, crashing into the side of bus #57. It was later discovered the bus driver who caused the accident had sent and received multiple text messages leading up to the time the two buses collided. He died a short time later of natural causes. Since the fatal crash, District Attorney General Charme Allen vowed it would never happen again.

When Tennessee enacted its distracted driving laws in July 2009, included was a ban on texting for all drivers, as well as a ban on all cell phone use for novice drivers and bus drivers. While it may have appeared on the surface that these laws were fairly comprehensive, they were difficult to enforce and actually failed to meet federal requirements. Fines for first-time offenders and repeat offenders were the same at $50, and Tennessee was one of the most lenient states when it came to distracted driving.

Attorney General Allen’s efforts have paid off. Last month, Tennessee became the state with the strongest law in the nation against distracted school bus drivers. The law signed by Gov. Bill Haslem increases penalties from $50 to a minimum of $1,000 for a driver caught on their mobile device (phone, PDA, tablet, laptop, pager, game camera, GPS), and confinement of more than 30 days in jail. It prohibits bus drivers from using such devices not only while they are driving the bus, but also while the bus is stopped to load and unload children. If caught, a bus driver would also permanently lose his/her license to drive a school bus in the state. The new takes effect July 1.

State Rep. John Holsclaw (R) believes there should be stiffer laws against cell phone use, handheld or otherwise, for all drivers. Holsclaw notes it is “almost impossible to enforce the (current) texting ban,” and says a handheld law is “the next step in doing what is necessary to curb distracted driving and keep Tennessee roads safe.” His plan was approved by the Transportation Committee but failed to advance.

Texting while driving has become the number one driving distraction for many people, not just bus drivers. Here are a few facts from donttextdrive.com

  • The United States Department of Transportation notes that cell phones are involved in 1.6 million auto crashes each year that cause a half million injuries and take 6,000 lives.
  • According to FocusDriven, up to 80 percent of all crashes involve some form of driver distraction.
  • During any point of the day, 11 percent of drivers are talking on their cell phones, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • A study from the University of Utah indicated that the reaction time of a teen driver using a cell phone is the same as that of a 70-year-old driver who is not using a cell phone.
  • According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an auto crash than driving when intoxicated.
  • The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute installed cameras on dashboards inside truck cabs. From the video footage, on average it took five seconds with their eyes off the road when drivers experienced distractions. The distance covered in five seconds of driving at 55 mph is equivalent to the length of a football field.

Driving a vehicle involves the coordination of your vision and your reflexes.  By taking your eyes or mind off the road or taking your hands off the wheel for even a second, your chances of being involved in a serious car accident increase significantly. Sensible legislation is a necessary start to stopping this dangerous activity. Let’s hope this case and the change in the Tennessee legislature will at least bring more awareness. You can help, too. One call (or text) can change it all. Whether or not your state has cell phone or texting laws, keep both hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road and pay attention to your surroundings. Strong legislation will help end cell phone distracted driving. Contact your state representative and show your support for bills banning cell phone use – handheld and hands-free – while driving.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.