Some lawmakers say the penalties under texting-while-driving laws aren't harsh enough, and need to be changed. Penalties for drunk drivers who cause a fatality are much harsher -- some states include a four-year minimum prison sentence and a permanent driver's license suspension.
Awareness of the dangers of texting-while-driving seem to be climbing, yet full appreciation of the problem has a long way to go. While most drivers see the moral hazard of driving while intoxicated, too few still think that checking email or answering a text while operating a motor vehicle falls into the same category.
Forty-one-year old Jerry Joseph pleaded guilty in April to a moving violation causing the death last November of 78-year-old Irene Paquin of Attica Township, Mich. Paquin, a grandmother, was the passenger in the car driven by her 81-year-old husband Paul. The Paquins were broadsided by Joseph's car.
Phone records obtained by the police revealed that Joseph was texting seconds before the impact.
"Our investigation, we believe, showed that texting was a contributing factor to the person failing to stop at the stop sign," said state police Lt. Patrick McGreevy at the time Joseph was charged.
Police departments have been in favor of tough texting-while-driving laws. "It [texting] takes away three things from the driver," McGreevy told Michigan news website www.mlive.com. "It takes away the visual because you have to look at the cell phone, it takes away the manual because you have to use your hands and it takes away the cognitive because you have to think about what you are doing, what you are texting."
In addition to jail time and probation, Joseph will also have to pay more than $5,000 in fines and restitution.
Despite the seemingly unjust outcome and light sentence, Lapeer County Prosecutor Byron Konschuh said the sentence handed down to Joseph was fair under current law. "It was a fair sentence under the law that we have at this time, the moving violation causing death, which texting and driving falls underneath, is a one year maximum," Konschuh said, although he'd like to see texting-while-driving penalties toughened up.
Despite plenty of academic research demonstrating that texting while driving can be just as dangerous, or more so, as drinking and driving, a recent poll shows that most teens simply don't think that's the case. State Farm sponsored a poll conducted by Harris Interactive last Fall in which 14- to 17-year-olds were asked whether they thought they would die one day if they regularly text and drive. Only 35 percent strongly agreed with that statement. Meantime, 55 percent of teens think that drinking and driving could prove deadly.
Konschuh says the statistics he has reviewed shows that texting and driving is about three or four times more dangerous than operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs when operating a motor vehicle. He is trying to get the penalties stiffened in Michigan: Causing a serious injury would be a five-year felony and causing death would be a 15-year felony, Konschuh said of his notion of just punishment at the sentencing hearing or Joseph.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is vocal supporter of tougher punishment on driving texters. LaHood, in Illinois for a summit with government leaders last month, noted that distracted drivers in 2009 caused at least 5,500 deaths and 450,000 injuries. He believes those numbers are much lower than the actual totals.
LaHood says 30 states have outlawed texting while driving-- and eight have banned hand-held cell phone use by drivers.
He called for stringent laws and consistent enforcement against distracted drivers.
"That's the reason I call this an epidemic, because we all own these and we all think we can use these any time any place and anywhere and it's just created a lot of bad behavior behind the wheel of a car," he said.