News Section: Opinion
Texting and Driving Law is a No-Brainer
Despite the efforts of local Senator Nancy Detert (R-Venice), Florida is still not among the 39 states to adopt a law making it illegal to text while driving. As text messaging continues to become a more routine form of both business and personal communication, the temptation to text while driving only increases. I don't think anyone would argue that typing on a mobile device while controlling a moving automobile is an incredibly dangerous proposition. But until it is an illegal one, I doubt we are likely to see anything but more of it.
Opponents have argued that such laws are overly intrusive, but the unique dangers of automobile accidents have made driving safety a well-established reason for limiting individual freedoms. You're not legally allowed to decide for yourself whether you've had too much alcohol to safely operate a vehicle, yet several studies, including a recent one at the University of Utah, found that texting while driving was more dangerous than driving with a .08 blood alcohol level in terms of impairment – the same BAL threshold that constitutes DUI in our state. We require drivers and passengers to wear seat belts, even though their use is strictly for their own protection, and unlike texting, failure to comply does not directly threaten another person's life, liberty or pursuit of happiness.
A survey by Nationwide Insurance reported that 80 percent of respondents said they favored laws making it illegal to text and other surveys report that around 20 percent of adults admit to the habit – a number that skyrockets to over 50 percent among teen respondents. That figure probably mirrors the difference in the amount of overall texting done by that demographic. But as the increased integration of cell phones and text-driven applications, like email and various social networks, follows the upswing in older Americans using such technologies, overall activity will continue to rise and using such devices while driving will likely follow.
Once could argue that any distracting activity is a danger when someone is behind the wheel of a few thousand pounds of quickly moving machinery. Eating, fiddling with the stereo, drinking coffee or yelling at kids in the backseat could all be equally perilous, but none of those activities have been found to have caused such a distinct spike in accident involvement. A study by Virginia Tech and the NHSTA showed that wireless devices were the number one source of driver inattention. Another study by Carnegie Mellon found that driving while using such a device reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.
Making texting while driving illegal would not only discourage the behavior by setting a consequence, it would also help to recalibrate social norms. Many people say they engage in the practice because there is a professional obligation to respond to work communication immediately and text messages are a way to get information in front of someone quicker than voice mail. With a ban on texting and driving, people will likely feel less obligated to respond instantly, while employers might also rethink expectations regarding communicating remotely.
Laws against the practice are also likely to drive new technologies that will create safer alternatives. Voice commands and voice to text applications already exist, but there might be increased demand and delivery of their integration and availability with mainstream phone and email products. We're not very far from car integrated devices that will make manually keying text into a phone an obsolete practice – in fact every ingredient already exists. Creating an overwhelming demand for affordable and highly compatible systems will go a long way toward creating the proper economy of scale to make them mainstream, and there is perhaps no better way of doing that than strict laws on the more dangerous alternative.
Detert and South Sarasota County House Rep. Doug Holder have filed identical bills to once again take up the issue in Tallahassee in the upcoming legislative session. Floridians would be well-served to contact their local legislators and lobby for their support of the bills. Meanwhile, we'd all do well to reconsider a deadly act that's becoming an increasingly routine part of our culture. I've yet to read a text message or email, the urgency of which was worth a human life and I doubt any of us ever will.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.