Texting while driving still legal in Montana

Montana became the only state in the country without a ban on texting while driving when a new law took effect in South Carolina this week.

Pat Wellenbach/AP/File
A phone is held in a car in Brunswick, Maine, in this file photo. Texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed, federal safety investigators declared in 2011, urging all states to impose total bans except for emergencies.

Montana became the only state in the nation that does not ban at least some drivers from texting when a new law took effect in South Carolina this week.

State Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley said Wednesday that while he believes Montana needs such a ban, the state has never led the charge for new laws regarding highway safety, leaving it to municipalities.

"I am disappointed that once again we're last to take something regarding highway safety seriously," Tooley said, noting the state went without a statewide law on child safety restraints for years.

About a dozen ordinances in Montana cities and two counties ban texting behind the wheel, according to the department.

Driver cellphone usage contributed to 1,614 crashes from 2004 to 2013, Montana Highway Patrol data shows.

Forty-four states, including South Carolina and Washington, D.C., ban texting while driving for all ages, AAA said. A handful of others, such as Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas only outlaw it for young and/or inexperienced drivers and for some bus drivers. In Arizona, cellphone use while driving is only illegal for bus drivers.

Montana lawmakers have proposed legislation banning the use of cellphones while driving in recent years, but those attempts failed to gain traction. As she has in the past, Democratic state Sen. Christine Kaufmann of Helena said she will propose a similar bill during the 2015 legislative session unless another lawmaker wants to take the lead.

"We should be embarrassed," Kauffmann said of the lack of a statewide ban. "It would be good to have consistency across the state. The focus should be on driving, not talking."

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