It's Time to Get Serious About Deterring Texting While Driving

Oct 13, 2014 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
It's Time to Get Serious About Deterring Texting While Driving

image by: Lord Jim

Study after study has shown that texting while driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving. So if laws are meant to be about protecting the populace, why the disconnect?

Imagine that X equals a reckless individual behavior that, because it has been determined to expose the general public to Y level of danger, results in Z penalty of law.  Now imagine another reckless behavior, W, that has also been determined to expose the general public to Y level of danger. Shouldn't W incur the same penalty of law (Z), since it exposes the general public to the exact same level of danger as X?

Congratulations on sitting through a smidgen of symbolic logic, which I hope makes the point that the penalty for a reckless behavior should be based on how dangerous it is to others. If two reckless behaviors are equally dangerous to others, the law ought to go to equal lengths to discourage them, right?

But the logic of law is nowhere near that clean, and in the real world there is a behavior more dangerous than drunk driving that is generally treated more lightly than littering. That behavior is texting while driving. But how many people must die at the hands of driving texters before the legal system gets serious about preventing it?

For as long as studies have been done on the subject, the results have been consistent and unambiguous: distracted driving (as the general use of handheld communication devices is called) significantly increases the chances of accidents; and text messaging (along with the less common practice of Web surfing) is the most dangerous form of distraction. For example, a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that drivers' texting while behind the wheel are 23 times more likely to get into an accident than if driving sans distraction. 

Moreover, numerous studies have posited that texting while driving is even more dangerous than drunk driving. A study by Britain's Transportation Research Laboratory (TRL), for example, found the reaction time of texting drivers to be three times slower than that of drunk drivers. And last year texting while driving surpassed drunk driving as the #1 cause of driving fatalities among teens.

Despite the obvious danger, distracted driving is ubiquitous. According to the National Safety Council, over one in four of all car accidents involve drivers using cell phones, with texting alone accounting for over 200,000 crashes every year.

For all that, the message sent by the American legal system is that texting while driving is no big deal. Take my home state as an example. The California Vehicle Code notes that a violation of the law prohibiting the use of wireless communications devices (there is no legal distinction between talking on a cell phone and driving while texting) "is an infraction punishable by a base fine of twenty dollars ($20) for a first offense and fifty dollars ($50) for each subsequent offense." In contrast, fines for littering while driving—certainly bad behavior but almost never fatal—range from $100 to $1,000.

Worse yet, police and other emergency-services personnel are exempt from prohibitions against texting while driving, so long as they are doing so "while operating an authorized emergency vehicle […] in the course and scope of his or her duties," as if doing so in such a circumstance somehow reduces the danger.

Such a permissive attitude may have contributed to the death of former Napster COO Milt Olin late last year at the hands of a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy. According to phone records, on the afternoon of December 8 Deputy Andrew Francis Wood was exchanging texts with his wife just prior to driving his patrol car into Olin, who was thrown from his bike to his death.

While a questionable investigation found that Wood's texting did not contribute to Olin's death (questionable for many reasons, including the fact that it took a Sheriff's Department detective's dissatisfaction with the initial investigation to unearth the fact that Wood was texting in his car prior to the accident), it was determined that Wood was composing a message on his patrol car's computer when he struck Olin. But because this is covered by the exemption for police (et al.), no charges were filed against Wood.

According to the Los Angeles Times, "Wood initially said that Olin had swerved from the bicycle lane on Mullholland Highway into the path of his patrol car [… b]ut the district attorney's office concluded that 'evidence examined in this investigation shows that this tragic collision occurred as a result of Deputy Wood crossing into the bicycle lane.'"

Among that evidence was the fact that Wood never applied his brakes prior to striking Olin, a pretty good indication of just how much a driver can miss while texting. As noted in a U.S. Department of Transporation study, drivers typically look at their electronic devices 4.6 seconds at a time while reading or composing messages, which at a speed of 55 miles per hour equates to driving the length of a football field without looking at the roadway.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, in California a first DUI offense results in an immediate suspension of one's driver's license for at least four months, up to six months in jail, up to $1,000 in fines, enrollment in a DUI program, and the installation of a device on the offender's car that prevents the driving while alcohol is on the offender's breath. Additionally, at the time of the offense, police will arrest the offender and impound the offender's car.

Obviously, this does not resemble the slap on the wrist the legal system gives to those caught texting while driving, despite the fact that the behaviors are more or less equally dangerous.

That should be reason enough to bring laws and penalties designed to deter texting while driving in line with those in relation to driving while intoxicated. Being that the former behavior has now superseded the latter as a cause of death among teens, clearly the message lawmaking adults are sending down the generational line regarding this most dangerous of driving behaviors is the wrong one.

So it's time for a change. Because while laws may not be able to prevent people from dying at the hands of texters, they can certainly do a better job of reducing the likelihood of such tragedies.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:



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