LOUISVILLE — Zsantinia Harris, 17, raced down the country road at 75 mph, weaving across the center line as she steered with her wrists and pecked out a text message on her cell phone. She barely glanced up in time to see a moped pull into her lane and go under her front tires.
"Well," Zsantinia told her laughing friends, "he clearly wanted to die."
Fortunately, the St. Francis High School junior wasn't in a car. She was in a driving simulator, essentially a large video game, that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet uses to teach people about the hazards of being distracted while behind the wheel.
Driver distraction caused more than 53,000 crashes in Kentucky last year, resulting in more than 15,000 injuries and 199 deaths, according to Kentucky State Police. At least seven of those fatalities were related to cell phone use.
For years, the General Assembly has brushed aside attempts to ban talking on cell phones while driving. Many lawmakers argue that talking isn't a distraction. But this winter, several bills have been pre-filed to prohibit texting while driving, on the grounds that anyone reading and writing clearly has stopped looking at the road.
A number of studies have shown that texting is much riskier than other distractions, such as listening to books on tape, because it occupies the drivers' hands and eyes. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released a study in July finding that texting can make it 23 times more likely that a truck driver will crash or have a "near-crash event."
Gov. Steve Beshear this month issued an executive order that banned texting while the state government's 34,000 employees drive state vehicles.
"I have two daughters in their 20s who are very technically inclined," said Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville. "They're in that group of young people who text like crazy while they're driving and think nothing of it. Until they're forced to stop, I don't think they'll stop."
Harper Angel has pre-filed a bill that would make it illegal to text while driving, with fines starting at $100 and rising to $300 for subsequent offenses. Fines of up to $600 would be levied if texting caused a crash.
In the House, Reps. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, and Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, separately have pre-filed similar legislation, but with smaller proposed fines. Nelson's bill also would ban any kind of cell phone use for drivers younger than 18, including talking.
Harper Angel said she expects the bills to get a favorable reception. It's possible, she said, that lawmakers who want to ban talking on the phone while driving will attach amendments, even if they only require hands-free headsets so drivers would keep both hands on the wheel.
"I think we'll move in that direction," she said.
So far, 19 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting for all drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nine more states have outlawed texting by younger, less experienced drivers.
The Transportation Cabinet supports a texting ban, although texting is just one of several dangerous habits, said Chuck Geveden, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety.
"Right now, all the talk is about texting," Geveden said. "But we're concerned about all distractions. That can be putting on makeup while driving, eating while driving. We even see people reading books or newspapers while they're driving."
At St. Francis High School on a recent morning, giggling students lined up for their turn in the driving simulator. Everyone predicted they would drive safely while texting. Nobody did. Told to type a short message, their attention shifted to the keypad and they crashed into trees and trucks, slid off the road and ran over joggers and deer.
"You're finding out that it is extremely hard to do two or three things at the same time, even if you can do any one of those things well," Steve Bowen, a Transportation Cabinet program coordinator, told the students over the sound effects of shattering glass and dying pedestrians.
Who among the students text while driving in real-life around Louisville? A quick show of hands revealed that most of them do.
Zsantinia Harris, who ran over the simulated moped, said she gets nervous using her cell phone when driving. She knows it slows her reaction time. So she seldom makes a call or initiates a text message, she said, and she usually checks the identity of an incoming call or message to decide if it's someone she must communicate with right away.
"I know, I need to not respond to it at all when I'm driving," she said.
"But then I'll see people in their cars on both sides of me, and they're texting," she added. "They'll have to slam on their brakes at red lights and then they'll be sitting there for a minute when the light turns green. It's like they forget where they are."