Published June 05, 2012
Now that the driving season is upon us, it's time more people saw flashing lights in their rear view mirrors. Let's make it open season on distracted drivers.
The use of cell phones in cars has been controversial for years, yet still only 10 states in the country ban it, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. But increasingly people are using their phones not for talking but for surfing the Web and texting, prompting pop psychologists to talk about smartphone addiction.
Disease or not, many people can't help but pick up their phones even when they are driving.
Furthermore, the level of potentially tempting distractions promises to increase in the coming years as automakers add local restaurant reviews, movie ticket reservations, and Facebook and Twitter to in-dash systems. From Cadillac to Subaru, these systems are already appearing in new models this year. And big companies see big demand among consumers. Verizon, for example, just announced this week it is purchasing Hughes Telematics, the company that supplies many of these systems to car manufacturers, such as Mercedes-Benz.
Obviously, this epidemic is not limited to one socio-economic group or area of the country. I've watched moms in blimp-like SUVs wheeling around New York City traffic with one hand on the wheel and the other on a cell phone. In verdant Vermont, many drivers seem surgically attached to their phones, as if the paucity of cellular service there mandates that when you do get a signal, you must begin texting -- whether you're behind the wheel or not.
On the highways near our nation's capital I noticed with horror a women driving in front of me at 70 mph, and texting on her iPhone (and we all know how easy that is to do on the iPhone's tiny touch screen).
New York, Vermont, and D.C. all have laws strictly banning these distracting practices (Vermont inconsistently does not ban handheld calling), yet they continue unabated. And it is dangerous. In the 5 seconds it takes to read a short text on a phone while you're doing 55 mph you will have driven the length of a football field—with your eyes closed.
A recent law prohibiting pedestrians from texting in Fort Lee, NJ, was much ridiculed, as if it were the modern day equivalent of the grumpy old man shouting, "Hey, you kids, get off my lawn." However, there's more than a few good reasons to hand out $85 texting tickets to pedestrians: If we can't stop drivers from texting, we better make sure that pedestrians don't text so they can keep their eyes peeled for the reckless drivers.
There is no fail-safe technical solution for blocking such behavior in cars, and blinking signs on the highway admonishing drivers don't seem to make much difference (they're probably too distracted by their phones to see the signs).
Last week, Ohio became the 39th state to ban texting while driving. But when the law goes into effect, it will only be a secondary offense. In other words, you can only be ticketed for texting in Ohio if you were initially pulled over for another offense, such as ignoring a red light or running over a pedestrian. Too little, too late.
Only 35 states including California and New York have made texting behind the wheel a primary offense. Yet a year-long study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in two towns -- Syracuse, NY, and Hartford, CT -- showed highly visible enforcement made a difference. Syracuse witnessed a 32 percent drop in handheld phone use and texting; Hartford saw an impressive 57 percent drop in handheld phone use and an important 72 percent decrease in texting by drivers.
Furthermore, unlike helmet and seat belt laws, there is no libertarian, anti-paternalistic argument against such anti-texting enforcement. Distracted drivers aren't just a danger to themselves, they are a danger to everyone on the road.
The difficultly facing police is the tricky nature of enforcing such laws, however, even when there is the political will. Police in Massachusetts have complained that it's difficult for officers to get into a position where they can see that a driver is texting on a phone, rather than just holding a device or tapping a contact to place a hands-free call. (Demanding the phone and checking the time stamp on a message once they've pulled a citizen over seems a little too invasive.)
So officers in some municipalities have taken unusual steps. In New York City, cops often lurk just outside tunnels looking for drivers who text in traffic. In Ottawa, Canada, it was reported recently that cops went undercover as homeless panhandlers --not to catch drug dealers but to spy into the windows of cars and catch their operators texting red handed.
Creative as these enforcement methods may be, it will become more of a challenge for law makers and law enforcement to police distracted driving in the future. Smartphone apps are rapidly being ported to in-dash systems with touch screens of their own. Auto companies are disabling some functions when a car is in motion, but they feel pressured by consumers who want to read Yelp restaurants reviews from the front seat.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is so anxious about such a future that it stated in a 177-page set of proposed guidelines that virtually anything like this -- including navigation systems -- is a dangerous distraction.
Brace yourself for a (painful) learning process, as police pull people over more often and hand out expensive tickets until everyone breaks the habit. Or finds a new distraction.