Sunday, April 4, 2010
The Ohio Senate will soon be considering a bill to ban texting while driving. The Ohio House of Representatives recently passed its version of a texting ban by a vote of 86-12. Some cities in Ohio, including Cleveland and Toledo, have already enacted anti-texting laws.
Ohio is not alone in its zeal to outlaw texting. There are 21 states that have enacted a ban prohibiting drivers from texting while behind the wheel. There are many more states in various stages of considering anti-texting legislation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration created model legislation which has been used in a number of states. Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Transportation banned texting and the use of hand-held cell phones by commercial truck and bus drivers.
Is the rush by legislators nationwide to pass some sort of ban on texting or cell phone use while driving going to make a significant impact on highway fatalities? A look at the numbers indicates that texting and cell phone use are only a small subsection of a bigger problem — distracted driving.
In 2008, 37,261 people died on America’s highways. A closer look at the numbers suggests that 5,870 of those fatalities were attributed to distracted driving, that is about 16-percent of all fatalities. Cell phone use, which includes texting, represents only a small portion of distracted driving fatalities.
In Pennsylvania in 2008, there were 1,468 traffic fatalities. According to the 2008 Pennsylvania Crash Facts & Statistics compiled by the Department of Transportation, 53 deaths were attributed to distracted driving and only a portion of those relate to cell phone use.
There are many other causes of distracted driving besides texting. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a web site www.distraction.gov. The site lists causes of distracted driving, in addition to cell phone use and texting. Included on the list are eating and drinking, putting on makeup, talking to passengers, reading, using navigation systems, changing the radio stations, CD’s, mp3’s and i-pods. Where is the call for a Big Mac ban or a Maybelline ban?
Texting is only the most recent and trendy cause of distracted driving. This is not to suggest that texting is not a serious problem. A University of Utah study found that cell phone use slows reaction time to about the same as someone driving with a .08 blood-alcohol limit or legally drunk.
Do we know the reaction time of driving with a hamburger in one hand, while reaching for coca-cola with the other hand? How about the reaction time while putting on eye-liner looking in the rearview mirror?
The point is, texting is dangerous but is only one of a number of problematic activities that go on inside a vehicle as it travels down the road. There are countless news stories like the 21-year-old Westport, Massachusetts man who was killed while texting and driving only minutes from his home; or the Florida cyclist who was killed by a driver who was texting while driving.
When the police find a cell phone at an accident scene they examine the phone, as they should, and it is fairly easy to determine if a call or text message was in progress at the time of the accident. However, if there was a Big Mac splattered on the windshield or mascara lying on the floor does that information make it into the police report? Does it make its way into the newspaper?
Is the frenzy to ban texting sending the wrong message? Should the effort be to raise awareness about distracted driving generally, and not focusing on only one aspect of this serious problem? Ohio already has a law which prohibits, “operation (of a vehicle) in willful or wanton disregard of the safety of persons or property.” Would Ohioans be better served if the police enforced the existing law against those who text, eat, groom and talk their way into being a threat on Ohio’s highways?
Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and a featured columnist for the Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Visit his blog at www.mattmangino.com.
6 months ago