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Text while driving simulator

Bryce Hawbaker tries texting and driving in a simulator at Central High in 2011.

Texting while driving in Montana is dangerous, but not illegal.

As Gazette readers learned last week, Montana has the ignominious distinction of being the only state in the Union with absolutely no law restricting texting while driving. South Carolina’s texting ban took effect last week.

The evidence is overwhelming that cellphone use is the No. 1 distraction for U.S. drivers. Some research indicates that texting drivers’ reactions to road hazards are slower than drunken drivers.

Montana’s neighbors all recognize the danger of texting while driving in their state laws. Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Idaho all ban texting for drivers. Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota also bar novice drivers under age 18 from using any cellphone while driving. Twelve other states prohibit all drivers from using cellphones while driving, including Washington, California, Hawaii and Nevada.

Most of Montana’s larger cities and some smaller ones have enacted city ordinances that restrict cellphone use. In Billings, it is illegal to use a hand-held electronic device while driving. The penalty is a fine. The ordinance makes exceptions for emergency calls and for radio/phone use by public health and safety professionals.

Last year, Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, introduced legislation proposing a statewide cellphone ban similar (but not identical) to the Billings ordinance. The bill died after being tabled in the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee.

Since the Billings ordinance went into effect, Billings police officers have issued warnings and tickets.

Sure, there are still drivers who talk and text, but we believe the ordinance has reduced drivers’ hand-held phone use.

Billings also recognized the importance of training young drivers to put down their phones. Driver’s education in Billings incorporates cellphone safety. National surveys show younger drivers, ages 16 to 24, are most likely to text or otherwise use their phones while driving.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly half a million Americans are injured each year in distracted driving crashes, and cell phone use is the most common distraction. At any given moment, according to NHTSA, 600,000 vehicles are being driving on U.S. roads by someone using a hand-held phone. Sending or reading one text takes eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that means driving 100 yards without looking at the road. Scary, huh?

Montana Highway Patrol statistics count 1,614 crashes in which driver cellphone use was a factor between 2004 and 2013.

Montana Transportation Director Mike Tooley told the Associated Press that he is disappointed with Montana’s lagging on this highway safety issue. So are we.

Kaufmann told the AP that she will again introduce legislation to ban phone use while driving when the Legislature convenes in January — unless another lawmaker wants to take the lead.

We call on all safety-conscious lawmakers to be leaders on closing this public safety gap. It’s a no-brainer: If you’re on the phone, your mind isn’t focused on driving.