State should crack down on texting drivers

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Texting while driving is dangerous, perhaps as dangerous as drunken driving.

Yet, the penalty for violating the ban on texting while driving does not increase for repeat offenders as it does for DUI convictions.

Congress views Washington’s $124 fine for each offense as too lenient.

But Congress has no power to make states impose tougher penalties. Congress must cajole states into tougher enforcement of its laws.

And that is what it is trying to do for driving while texting. Congress is offering significant funding in its transportation budget — think carrot — to convince states to crack down on serial texters as well as youths who talk on their cellphones while driving.

Now, Washington, 38 states and the District of Columbia are eligible for a piece of $5.6 million being handed out to states with texting laws. Washington should get about $300,000.

If the Legislature were to increase penalties the state would be eligible for a large grant to be used for education and enforcement purposes. States with tougher laws would be eligible to split up $11.9 million in 2013 and $18.1 million in 2014. Since few states have escalating fines, that would be some significant money.

“It could be a sizable Powerball for the state if we had the laws in place that would allow us to be able to access those funds,” said Jonna VanDyk, a program manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

The Legislature should make the penalties for texting and talking on a cellphone — regardless of age — tougher for repeat offenders. A lot tougher.

We believe this should be done even if the federal government didn’t offer a penny of incentive.

If the drivers in Walla Walla are any indication, few are taking the cellphone law seriously. Look at any intersection and see driver after driver with a phone pressed to his or her ear. Texters are more difficult to detect, but we suspect it’s going on at a rate that is too high.

Tougher fines would send a clear message to the public that this dangerous behavior will not be tolerated.

Washington state leads the nation in seat-belt compliance at 97.5 percent.

Let’s have similar success in curbing texting and cellphone abuse. Tougher penalties could help.

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