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It is indisputable that one result of the proliferation of handheld mobile devices is the distraction of drivers on the road, thus making car travel less safe for those using the devices as well as for other drivers. Devices built into cars, such as GPS navigation systems and complicated radio controls, present their own safety risks, but the driver’s personal cell phone still receives a large (and well-deserved) chunk of the blame for distraction-induced auto accidents.
The risks posed by cell phone usage while driving have led several states to enact laws restricting such activity. Five states, including New York, have banned drivers from speaking on a handheld phone while operating a vehicle. Though speaking on a phone undoubtedly results in serious driver distraction, another and perhaps even more dangerous risk comes not from talking on the phone, but from texting, which a driver can do only by looking away from the road. Polls have indicated that 20 percent of drivers receive or send text messages while driving, and among 18-24 year olds, the number rises to 60 percent. Texting has been the supposed cause of numerous deadly car, train and bus accidents. Most recently, a San Antonio bus driver was caught on tape in a jarring video texting for six minutes before eventually causing a multi-car freeway pileup.
The grave danger associated with “driving while texting” (DWT) has resulted in state legislatures pushing for further restrictions on cell phone usage that would curtail this specific risk. Currently, 10 states–Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia and Washington–as well as the District of Columbia, have laws that prohibit drivers from texting while behind the wheel. State laws on DWT differ in whether they are primary or secondary enforcement laws. A primary enforcement law, such as California’s, is one that can incur a penalty in itself whether or not another traffic violation (besides the texting) has occurred. A secondary enforcement law, on the other hand, requires the commission of some other traffic violation before a penalty for texting can be imposed.
The efficacy of such laws in improving safety on the road is debatable, as many drivers may continue to text, assuming they won’t get caught. Last week, Verizon Wireless stated that it plans to take an active role in supporting state bans on texting while driving. Verizon’s lobbying-like stance appears to be more forceful than the position held by the CTIA, the mobile phone industry trade group, which also supports bans on texting. It is unclear how much weight state legislatures will give to Verizon’s call for action. It will be interesting to follow these DWT laws as more states consider them as well as to see how many states choose to enact laws with primary enforcement status, which likely has the most deterrent effect.
Check out this site from the Governors’ Highway Safety Association for a good state-by-state summary of in-car cell phone usage laws.
– Rachel Friedman
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