OMG: Are texting while driving laws a joke?

Traffic law, Crime

Everybody knows that texting while driving is deadly and, in most states, illegal. Yet, on any given day on any given highway, most drivers are likely to witness at least one offense. Laws prohibiting texting while driving were put in place to prevent senseless tragedies, but is anyone really worried about getting caught?

Is it really a problem? Why yes, yes it is

The mere existence of a site named the “Official U.S. Government Website for Distracted Driving” indicates that the nation acknowledges it has a problem on its hands. While “distractions” can include eating, grooming, and even talking to passengers, it is texting—which “requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention“—that recognizes as the “most alarming distraction.”

Currently, however, there is no federal law to prohibit texting while driving—that charge lies with states (and sometimes with the localities). As of September 2015, text messaging while driving is against the law in 46 states and Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But do they matter? Are they effective at all?

Are texting and driving laws useless?

A recent article in The Seattle Times reported that, on average, “fewer than two drivers a week in Seattle were cited in 2014.” And a 2013 study by USA Today found that texting drivers are rarely busted anywhere in the nation. Most average a couple dozen or so citations a month. Raise your hand if that seems a bit low.

Seasoned texters keep the phone low and out of sight. And many laws against texting while driving (i.e. sending and receiving text messages) do not necessarily address other distractions a driver’s phone provides: surfing the internet, checking Facebook, or receiving Snapchats, to name just a few. In some states, Washington for example, drivers can legally text when stopped at a red light because the law only prohibits texting in a moving vehicle.

“Often times, a driver is only punished for texting while driving after causing a collision,” says attorney Ali Diercks of Berry & Carr on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Diercks cited a 2014 study by the American Journal of Public Health which revealed that texting-while-driving laws do not significantly reduce motor vehicle fatalities (except for drivers age 15-21). So why do such laws exist?

Because it’s a start. In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that “at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving.” And the average time a driver’s eyes are off the road while texting is five seconds—at 55 mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of one football field…blindfolded.

So, no, laws against texting while driving are certainly not pointless. They’re just exceptionally difficult to enforce. And “just because the laws don’t correlate to a drop in fatal crashes does not mean they are useless,” says Diercks.

Public service announcements raise awareness

“When it comes to actually enforcing texting-while-driving bans, law enforcement is doing everything in their power to detect and stop distracted driving,” says criminal defense attorney Christopher Corso, founder of Corso Law Group in Phoenix and Houston. “Certain devices are even in the works to help police better detect texting and driving; but for now, spreading awareness about the dangers and legal repercussions of distracted driving is doing a lot to help enforce these laws.”

If distracted drivers aren’t diverted by the threat of law enforcement, perhaps they’ll be more swayed by emotional appeals.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog created From One Second to the Next, a powerful short film financed by AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile as part of the “It Can Wait” driver safety campaign. The film has been viewed more than 3.5 million times on YouTube and distributed to tens of thousands of high school students in an effort to raise awareness.

In Hong Kong, Volkswagen shocked moviegoers with an interactive PSA called “Eyes on the Road.” The ad put viewers behind the wheel of a car on the empty road, while the theater used a location-based broadcaster to send texts to their phones. As the audience members checked their phones, their on-screen vehicle crashed and jolted them back to the scene. Powerful stuff: an estimated 4 million people have viewed the video.

Approaching from another direction

Attorney and distracted driving expert Doug Horn, frustrated by the complacency of motorists, is championing the new “Drive By Example” initiative, which aims to extend the conversation beyond distracted driving. The “culture” of driving in general, according to Horn, includes the speed at which we drive, the pressures from personal and professional stress that cause distracted driving, and the seemingly constant need to be connected technologically to others.

And while law enforcement agencies figure out how to catch texting drivers in the act, Horn wants to “villainize” distracted driving to the level of how drunk driving is viewed by society: serious and criminal.

“Texting and driving doesn’t cause ‘accidents,'” says Diercks. “An accident is something that was unavoidable or was no one’s fault. A collision caused by a texting driver is a choice.”