California can’t seem to decide whether texting while driving is safe.  Back in 2009, California implemented its first ban on the practice.  That law banned any reading or sending text messages while driving.  However, the Auto Club found that the percentage of drivers who texted while driving actually doubled in the year after the legislation.  That study, which observed about 4,000 drivers per day in Orange County, California, cited the difficulty for police in catching people who text while driving compared to the relative ease by which they can see whether someone is talking on the phone.

California State Senator Simitan used this study to conclude that California needs a stricter deterrent to keep people from texting on the roadways.  While the original fines were $20 for the first offense and $50 for the second and subsequent offenses, Senator Simitan proposed raising the fines by $10 for each offense.  The bill would also add a point to the driver’s record for each violation after the first one. However, California Governor Jerry Brown has now vetoed Simitan’s bill for the second year in a row.  Governor Brown claims that the current fines should be sufficient “for people of ordinary means.”  Governor Brown cited the fact that a $30 fine would actually total as much as $251 out-of-pocket, after county taxes and fees, while a $60 fine could be as much as $372.

Moving away from being more punitive, on January 1, 2013, California added an exception to the texting ban for the use of hands-free devices.  This bill allows the use of in-dash navigation and texting programs in cars, such as OnStar.  However, the assemblyman who drafted the bill admitted that its language left open the possibility of people using hands-free programs on their cellphones.  This will encourage people to dictate their text messages on their cell phones using Siri or similar programs on other devices.  By encouraging people to keep their hands off of their phones, lawmakers hope that more people will be able to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

The new law, however, has met with some resistance.  The freshman State Assemblyman Jim Frazier claims that, even when using hands-free texting, a driver’s eyes are off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds.  If a driver is traveling at 55 mph, the driver’s eyes would be off of the road for “almost a football field.”  Unfortunately for Assemblyman Frazier, using hands-free devices to text while driving has become a way of life for California drivers, even though only three months have passed since the bill was enacted.  California drivers face long commutes, and they sometimes need to be able to communicate efficiently during those commutes.  Assemblyman Frazier claims that hands-free talking on the phone is still available, and is safer than hands-free texting, although it is unclear why that would be.

Only one thing is for sure: the debate on how drivers are able to use their cellphones will continue as long as phones continue to cause car accidents.

Ryan Loofbourrow


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7 Responses to Texting While Driving Kills… Maybe

  1. Brooke McLeod says:

    I think Avery’s point about education is the better solution here. The problem isn’t just texting while driving; it is all forms of distracted driving. For example, if you are talking on the phone, even though your eyes are on the road, you could still not be paying attention at all to the road around you. This type of behavior is just as dangerous as texting while driving but isn’t addressed by nearly as much legislation or education campaigns. Distracted driving in general should be the focus here, not just specific actions like texting.

  2. ADM says:

    Mary, I love your comment that one way to make texting while commuting safer would be to promote transit options. I think that if politicians came together to work on that problem, that could go a long way to making the roads safer, or at least less congested so maybe people could wait until they arrive at their destination before checking their phones again. Just based on my personal experience, bans on texting have done almost nothing to change behavior, and since our phones are only becoming more integrated into every part of our lives, non-compliance with bans will only increase. I think a different approach is necessary.

  3. Andrew Bauer says:

    I certainly agree that texting while driving is very dangerous, but as you point out, enforcement problems make it a difficult practice to effectively curtail. While I’m not against outlawing it, this may be an area where public education about just how dangerous it is would be more effective in increasing safety.

  4. Marina Visan says:

    Very interesting post! I have always wondered how police officers are even able to catch someone texting and driving when people do manage to text in such covert ways. It’s important to point out that many people usually text at stop lights, which might arguably not be as dangerous. Surprisingly, I’ve learned that even texting while stopped could still be distracting. Apparently, once you start driving (when the light turns green), you’re still distracted, because you’re thinking about that text, either completing it or receiving a reply. Additionally, what about iPods? Or if you’re using your phone for another purpose? What if you’re navigating your way home using Google Maps? Would that be equally illegal? It’s certainly a difficult law to enforce, so, again, very interesting topic!

  5. Mary Fletcher King says:

    I agree with Avery’s point about education—I think the statement about how your eyes are off the road for the length of a football field is pretty powerful and would make an impact on drivers. But, I also think one of the main issues is the long commute. People who have to travel for long periods of time are going to try to be as productive as possible in that time and so will use whatever technology is available. Perhaps California, in an effort to decrease the number of accidents caused by using technology while driving, should increase and promote public transportation options like light rails that offer wifi. That might take hazardous drivers off of the roads and into a safer environment. Driverless cars, like Dahni wrote about earlier, could also serve this same purpose.

  6. Avery VanPelt says:

    Great post, Ryan! While I certainly agree that lawmakers should take measures to make the roads safer and discourage distracted driving, the enactment of difficult-to-enforce laws, and later creating exceptions to the laws that are enacted, seems to only undermine the legitimacy of the laws (in the sense that people so widely disregard them). I wonder how much more effective public awareness and advocacy campaigns are at deterring texting while driving? When the penalties are small and the problem hard to detect, perhaps government resources would be better directed at deterrence programs that educate rather than penalize?

  7. Mike Dearington says:

    Nice post, Ryan. I also wonder about the practical impact of these bans. It has been suggested that bans on texting while driving are actually more dangerous than not having a ban, perhaps because people try to be more covert when they text, in order to evade detection.

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