The Governors Highway Safety Association has reversed its long-held position on texting and driving and now wants every state to ban the activity—while admitting the measures will be difficult to enforce.
The GHSA changed its position in August, a few weeks after the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) released a study comparing texting while driving with the impairment experienced by drunk drivers.
Seventeen states—including Illinois, Maryland, and Oregon—and the District of Columbia currently have laws banning texting while driving, with 10 states having passed their measures this year. Texting has been blamed for several high-profile accidents over the past year, including commuter train crashes in Los Angeles and Washington, DC and a trolley collision in Boston.
“It’s one thing to say that something is dangerous and quite another to actually ‘see’ how dangerous it is,” said Sherri Box, public relations and marketing manager for VTTI. “Our research has sparked national debate over the dangers of texting while driving and if nothing else, has made and will continue to make drivers more aware of how quickly situations can change when they take their eyes off the forward roadway at all.”
The VTTI study found a driver is 23 times more likely to get into a crash or nearly cause an accident if the driver is texting or trying to read a text message.
“The danger increases exponentially when they take their eyes off the forward roadway for the extended period of time it takes to send or receive text messages,” Box said.
While endorsing bans in all 50 states, the GHSA admitted enforcing them would likely prove difficult. According to the wireless industry group CTIA, the number of text messages sent monthly has increased more than tenfold in the past three years, from 9.8 billion in December 2005 to 110.4 billion in December 2008.
John Walls, CTIA’s vice president for public affairs, said the association supports a ban but believes educating the public about the dangers would do more good.
“There is no reason someone should be manually texting while operating a motor vehicle,” Walls said. “Texting and driving are incompatible. … [But] a law alone will not solve the problem of distracted driving, especially one law aimed at one action.”
CTIA has been working on public service announcements about the dangers of texting while driving.
“Education is an effective solution. Making drivers aware will go a long way towards modifying behavior,” Walls said.
Steve Thomas of DrivingLaws.org also agrees with the proposed ban, but he notes the larger safety issue is distracted driving regardless of the reason.
“I don’t see a big difference between reckless driving and distracted driving, since the latter may lead to the former,” Thomas said. “The distracted driver makes a conscious choice to participate in a behavior that increases the odds that they will cause the death of an innocent person.”
Thomas, too, points to education as a solution.
“I believe people will begin to see the importance of placing [the dangers of texting while driving] in front of our youth early on,” Thomas said.
More Harm than Good?
California Assemblyman Chuck Devore (R-Irvine) said the enforcement challenges argue against imposing statewide bans, which would only double-up on existing law anyway.
“There are already laws against reckless driving in every state,” Devore said. “It is nearly impossible for a law enforcement officer to discern whether a driver is dialing a number on a cell phone, which remains legal, or texting, which is illegal in some states.
“I am aware of many instances already where people were pulled over for either speaking on a cell phone, which they weren’t, or texting, which they weren’t,” Devore said. “Clumsy enforcement of these nanny state laws may eventually work to undermine public support for law enforcement.”
Ban Radio Fiddling, Too?
Devore added he’s seen studies showing a “significant number” of fatal auto accidents are caused by drivers “adjusting the dials on their car stereo systems or while eating or speaking to a child in the back seat.
“Should we then move to save people from themselves and ban car stereos?” Devore asked. “Or eating in a car? How about talking to passengers? We could save tens of thousands of lives every year if we set a national speed limit at five mph. Distracted driving is a problem, but in every state, law enforcement already has a tool to address this: laws against reckless driving.”
Market Solutions Preferred
Devore says there may be a free-market solution to this problem now that most cell phones have GPS technology.
“It would be possible to prevent a cell phone from texting while moving above a certain speed,” Devore said. “Such a phone might then qualify a driver for an auto insurance discount—if insurance companies saw enough evidence that their losses would be reduced.”
Berin Szoka, a fellow at the Washington, DC-based Progress & Freedom Foundation, agrees market-based solutions would be more effective than “draconian” laws.
“Do we really need the government telling us when we can use a technology that really might be essential in certain circumstances, or totally safe in others—say, when we’re behind the wheel but stopped at a long light or in a traffic jam?” Szoka asked.
Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.