By Jim Owen
It is now illegal everywhere in New Mexico to send and read text messages, or search the Internet, while driving a vehicle.
The ban, among several state laws that went into effect Tuesday, does not apply to hands-free communication devices or global-positioning systems. It is still lawful to use hand-held devices while parked on the side of the road, and to text emergency-services providers.
Before, only teenagers with learning permits were prohibited from texting while driving. Under the new statute, violators will be subject to $25 fines. The penalty increases to $50 for a repeat offender.
Silver City and Bayard already had ordinances outlawing texting by motorists. The Silver City statute went into effect in 2012, and Bayard city councilors approved their ban in December. The penalties in Bayard (a $100-$300 fine, 90-day jail term or both) are much more severe than those imposed by the state law.
However, according to officials at the two towns' municipal courts, police officers have written no citations. The police chiefs were unavailable for comment.
Grant County does not have any ordinance regarding cell phones and drivers. Sheriff Raul Villanueva said his officers will issue tickets to those who violate the state law.
"We need to enforce it," he told the Beat. "This is a big safety concern. I've seen it myself; I was almost hit by someone who was texting."
Supporters of the legislation say it will prevent traffic accidents and save lives. According to federal officials, a motorist is 23 percent more likely to be involved in an accident while texting. In about 1.6 million crashes (and 6,000 deaths) a year nationwide, at least one of the drivers was using a cell phone, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported.
There was little opposition to the law when legislators debated it earlier this year. Only one member of the House of Representatives (Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec) voted against the bill. Rep. Rudy Martinez, D-Bayard, supported it; while Rep. Dianne Hamilton, R-Silver City, was absent. In the Senate, the measure passed 37-5, with Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, among those in the majority.
Some residents have expressed concerns. They point out that the law gives police officers additional power to detain and question drivers. Some opponents say the texting ban is an infringement on individual freedom. Others suggest that the statute discriminates against young people, who do the most texting.
The only states where texting while driving is still legal are Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas.
Another law that went into effect July 1 in New Mexico is aimed at assisting the families of firefighters killed on the job. The death benefit is now $250,000, up from the previous $50,000.
Gross-receipts taxes are no longer being assessed on the sale and maintenance of airplanes, and the licensing process has been simplified for nurses who move to New Mexico.
Also on Tuesday, state officials began allocating an additional $2.2 million a year in liquor-tax proceeds to programs designed to prevent drunken driving.