Friday, March 9, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Texting is out--phone calls, GPS, cheeseburgers and makeup still okay

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
March 9, 2012

The law forbidding texting while driving went into effect yesterday. The texting-ban is now a primary offense—meaning police can pull people over for texting alone, absent any other driving offense.

It includes a $50 fine for a text-based communication, including sending or reading emails. It also forbids surfing the Web. A vehicle must be in motion for the driver to be fined, and talking on the phone while driving is still legal in Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania in 2010, there were 1,324 traffic fatalities. According to the 2010 Pennsylvania Crash Facts & Statistics compiled by the Department of Transportation, 52 deaths were attributed to distracted driving and only a portion of those related to cell phone use. For instance, in 2008 there were 53 deaths attributed to distracted driving, only six of those deaths, about 11 percent, were the result of cell phone use.

The State Police have said troopers will pull over motorists who might be driving slower than surrounding traffic or bobbing and weaving. The challenge for troopers enforcing a text-messaging ban will be discerning from a distance what drivers are actually doing with their phones. “Are we going to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody was texting? Probably not,” Allentown police Capt. Daryl Hendricks said. That is problematic. Beyond a reasonable doubt is precisely the burden of proof required to get a conviction for texting while driving.

Rob Dietz of, a nonprofit group in Maine, noted that if texting is off-limits but handheld devices are not, a driver may not be texting, but may doing any number of things with a handheld device which are perfectly legal.

Beside the legal use of handheld devices for things other than texting, there are many other causes of distracted driving. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a web site 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, CDs, mp3s and iPods. 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.

So why all the attention to texting while driving? Ninety percent of Americans think texting while driving should be outlawed, compared with just eight percent who think it’s alright. Polling numbers like that always get the attention of legislators. Maybe that explains why 36 states have enacted some sort of texting ban.

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