There’s no argument that the dangers of distracted driving currently outweigh the seriousness of the penalties for doing so. Whether shaving or texting, any action that diverts attention or mental and physical resources from the task of driving is incredibly dangerous.
After all, drivers are wielding 1,500 pound metal objects at high speed. Focus is mandatory.
So why do most states fail to impose laws that reflect the seriousness of the danger?
In California, drunk drivers face, on the first offense, a $1000 fine, a suspended license and mandatory jail time of up to six months. By comparison, a new law combating distracted driving imposes a $300 dollar fine on first offenders. Some states, like Alabama, don’t impose any cell phone related restrictions on drivers over the age of 17.
Now consider a study conducted by researchers from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute, which sought to quantify how much cell phones actually distract drivers. The results are disturbing, considering minor the legal ramifications.
TTI measured the reaction times of focused drivers and then for those using cell phones by monitoring how quickly drivers responded to a flashing light, meant to represent information like an actual yellow light or a pedestrian crossing the street.
Normal reaction times for focused drivers were “a second or two,” but doubled when a cell phone was put in the driver’s hand. TTI reported that texting drivers were eleven times more likely to completely miss the flashing warning lights.
It makes sense. There are three primary ways to be distracted: when your eyes, hands, or mind are not employed for the task of driving. Texting, and even choosing whether to answer a phone seriously engages all three.
But it’s not so easy for lawmakers to legislate. Unlike drunk driving, for which simple and effective testing measures can determine guilt at the scene, distracted drivers are harder to monitor. In many distracted driving cases that go to court, police have to request phone use records from wireless providers to determine whether the person was actively receiving or sending texts at the time. This cumbersome process complicates enforcement and prosecution of the law.
Philosophically, one wonders if a law that levied incredibly harsh penalties but was almost unenforceable would be a sufficient deterrent to criminal behavior.
There are technologies available that claim to make it safer (and some that make it impossible) to use the phone while driving, and I suspect that weak legislation will be trumped by the integration of phone and car technology. If you can text and talk without removing your hands form the wheel, new, more stringent laws may not be necessary.
The real issue may be that while the vast majority of people recognize how dangerous distracted driving is, a large portion of Americans surveyed by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety are still texting while driving.
When people recognize a need for change yet do not feel compelled to make the changes themselves, new, harsher laws can be the incentive they need. In areas like copyright law, we’re rushing to fill in laws to account for the ways new technologies change our lives. Texting while driving doesn’t just change lives, it can end them. It’s an issue that deserves our full attention.