Cut it out: Driving While Texting

Forget about drinking and driving and talking on your cell phone. The latest crazy in dumb driving involves texting for chat or email. Washington State Legislature is trying to respond by offering a bill that would make it a crime to “operate a motor vehicle while reading, writing or sending electronic messages.”
In Oregon, pending bills would provide fines — up to $720 in one of them — for any driver caught texting or holding a cell phone to an ear. And in Arizona, a bill is pending that would make DWT a ticketable offense.

Lawmakers are being encouraged by insurance companies like Allstate, which has added an e-mail fanatic to its stable of “multitasker” safe-driving ads. The campaign shows the “dedicated investor,” who is balancing a BlackBerry and the business section of a newspaper on the wheel while he navigates his sports car through stop-and-go traffic.
Although driving while talking on cell phones has gotten the most legislative attention, DWT is a natural transition. Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, California and the District of Columbia outlaw the use of handheld phones while driving, and 38 states are currently considering 133 bills that would regulate their use behind the wheel, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Few driver distractions seem quite as frighteningly intrusive as attempting to read and type messages while weaving in traffic. The first reported incident of DWT may have been in Tennessee in 2005, when a man died while texting when he lost control of his pickup and plunged down an embankment. In Colorado that same year, a teenager served 10 days in jail after he struck and killed a bicyclist while texting a friend.

A study conducted by Nationwide Mutual Insurance that was released this year found that 19% of all drivers — and 37% of drivers between the ages of 18 and 27 — text message behind the wheel.

Sprint Nextel, which opposes legislation that would limit wireless devices in cars, has lobbyists who campaign to detract interest away from phones as distractions. The company has begun distributing a series of four posters to high schools around the country that highlight this strategy. One of the posters shows a burger and fries, while the others show a tube of mascara, a compact disc and a silver flip-top phone. The caption on the phone poster reads: “Cell Phone 4oz. Car 2,800 lbs. Taking the wheel is a ton of responsibility.”

Some statistics show that wireless devices cause crashes. Indeed, there are few data suggesting that texting causes more wrecks than, say, fast food. A study conducted by the state of Washington in 2006 blamed “driver distractions” for 7.5% of the 50,000 reported accidents during the first nine months of that year.

Interestingly, police in Washington say not a day passes when they don’t see a case of DWT, and that the statistics may not reflect the extent of the problem. Many wrecks have an undetermined cause, and DWT data rely on driver honesty. Current state law gives drivers little incentive to blab. The reward for honesty is a ticket for negligent operation of a vehicle, which draws a flat $538 fine.
The only way to independently determine whether the devices were in use is cumbersome. Police would have to get a warrant to subpoena billing records. But it would be hard to talk a judge into granting such subpoenas for a fender bender. In light of this, the biggest problem with McDonald’s legislation may be its enforceability.

[tags]dwt, driving while texting, cell phone drivers, driving with cell phone[/tags]