“Nothing travels faster than light, with the possible exception of bad news, which follows its own rules,” said the late British author Douglas Adams. One commodity that at times can move even faster is erroneous news, and that’s especially true in this age of e-mail mass forwarding.

Texans encountered another example of how that works in recent weeks as e-mails offering of list of new traffic laws reportedly going into effect at the beginning of July. The only problem was, none of it was true.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety said the main DPS office in Austin as well as the agency’s field offices had been swamped with calls about the report. Among those calling were members of the news media, including this one, and it prompted the DPS to put a notice on its Web site and provide officers to speak on television.

That DPS spokesman observed that when traffic laws do change, it takes months and even years for that information to become generally recognized, even with the best efforts of the media and police officers supporting them. But let something erroneous get started, and it will appear everywhere.

Some of the inaccurate information announced markedly higher fines for more routine violations, such as failure to wear seat belts, blocking an intersection or violating car pool lanes. Those figures aren’t true. Other “laws” shown in the list said only hands-free cell phones could be legally used by drivers, and no grace would be given motorists driving 3 mph above the posted limit.

Several lawmakers have proposed making hands-free devices mandatory, but that’s not happened — yet. And regardless of what drivers think enforcement practices might be, according to Texas law, any speed over the posted limit is a violation.

The communication possibilities opened to the world through the Internet continue to astound us, and much of it is helpful and beneficial. But those possibilities also offer new opportunities for crime and misinformation, and sources must be checked and facts verified before people act on them. A quick look at one of several available “rumor” Web sites could determine that this particular traffic law e-mail is bogus. If only a small percentage of the Texans who received it had bothered to spend two minutes looking that up before forwarding it along to everyone in their address books, this rumor would not have become such a concern. As it turns out, the e-mail was an exact duplicate of one that circulated in California, where a few of the “new laws” had some basis in fact. But even for California, the laws were listed were mostly wrong.

It’s a good lesson for everyone who uses e-mail. Many, perhaps most, of these type of e-mails have major flaws, if there’s any truth behind them at all. If you don’t have the time to verify them, hit “delete” instead of “forward.”

Brownwood Bulletin