LITTLE ROCK — The possibility of a $100 fine for texting and driving is not a deterrent and the penalty should be much harsher, a southern Arkansas lawmaker said Tuesday.
Rep. David Fielding, D-Magnolia, said he intends to meet with law enforcement officers, prosecutors and lawmakers by the end of the year to discuss possibly increasing the severity of the penalty during the 2013 legislative session.
Fielding planned to ask a legislative committee Wednesday to approve his request to study the issue, including whether the 2009 law is adequately being enforced or whether police should be more aggressive in enforcement.
The Senate Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs and the House Committee on Public Transportation meet jointly Wednesday afternoon at Ryerson Inc., a steel distribution company in Little Rock.
While texting and driving is a primary offense, meaning the police can stop a driver solely for texting while behind the wheel, it does not appear to be heavily enforced.
Angela Hines, spokeswoman for Springdale-based TextFace.com, created in 2011 to educate the public and law enforcement on the dangers of texting and driving, said that 18 citations for the offense have been written since Arkansas’ law took effect in October 2009.
"I know we can do better, and based on what we’ve seen there are a lot more people out here that are (texting)," Hines said.
Six people appeared in Little Rock Traffic Court in 2011 with citations for texting and driving, a court clerk said Tuesday. Two have appeared so far this year.
Bill Sadler, spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, said state troopers have issued 185 warnings to drivers for texting and driving since the law took effect. He said he did not know how many citations had been issued.
Fielding said he would like to see the penalty for texting and driving "changed to something comparable to a DWI."
"I mean the only way you can really get punished for texting is if you actually kill someone," he said.
A first offense DWI conviction in Arkansas is punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
Act 181 of 2009 prohibits drivers in Arkansas from texting or sending e-mail from their handheld devices while driving. The legislation is referred to as "Paul’s Law," after Paul Davidson of Jonesboro. The father of three was killed in a head-on crash with a driver who was typing a text message.
Fielding, who makes regular trips from Magnolia to the state Capitol for legislative meetings, said he sees people texting regularly on the highway. He said he has received a number of calls from constituents complaining about the problem.
"You can tell, when they are wobbling down the road, looking down … it really takes away from your concentration on driving down the road," the lawmaker said.
"I think we need to put some teeth in this," he said. "We need to do something that deters people from texting, because right now we don’t."
Rep. Andrea Lea, R-Russellville, one of two House members who voted against the bill in 2009, said she looks forward to talking with Fielding about his proposal.
"I am curious to know what his thoughts are," she said.
Lea said she voted against the original bill because she does not like voting for laws that cannot be enforced.
"I just think we pass a lot of laws that are unenforceable just because they might be feel-good law and obviously, it appears, that Mr. Fielding agrees," she said, noting how few citations had been issued since the measure became law.