Is “distracted driving” worse than driving drunk?

Traffic law, Crime, DUI

Distracted driving is a serious national issue. And unlike the well-known dangers of drinking and driving, the perception of it remains relatively benign. The truth is, distracted driving may actually be a bigger problem than DUIs. For many people, it only hits home when it results in an accident—often a tragic one—that affects them or a loved one.

Laws that restrict drivers’ cell phone use, the most common cause of distracted driving mishaps, are not new, but several states are re-examining their current legislation to curb the rise of distracted driving injuries.

Harrowing statistics

According to the Centers for Disease Control, each day in the United States approximately nine people die and more than a thousand are injured in accidents that involved at least one distracted driver.

Based on the latest research data, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 660,000 drivers use electronic devices while driving during daylight hours. The statistics are staggering and continue to rise.

Beyond the cell phone

Distracted driving is not just about cell phones; it encompasses any activity that takes the driver’s attention away from the road, including eating, drinking, adjusting the radio or the seat, or even having a conversation with a passenger.

Even so, the NHTSA identifies texting as the most potentially dangerous form of distracted diving, pointing out that in the five seconds it takes to look at a text message a car going 55 mph can travel 300 feet. That’s tantamount to driving the distance of a football field, essentially with your eyes closed.

Primary vs. secondary offense

What are law enforcement and legislators doing about it? Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia (D.C.) ban the use of handheld phones while driving outright. Forty-six states plus D.C. ban texting while driving.

Enforcement of these laws, however, depends on whether they make violations a primary or a secondary offense. Basically, the police can pull you over and write you a traffic ticket for a primary offense, but not for a secondary offense alone. With secondary offenses, the officer must stop you for some primary violation (such as speeding or failing to signal) before they can cite you for the secondary offense of distracted driving.

While the hand-held ban is a primary offense in all cases, the same is not true of the texting prohibitions. But that’s changing. In Iowa, for example, texting, web browsing, social media use, and gaming became primary enforcement offenses as of July 1, 2017. In addition to the primary classification, the Hawkeye State’s new law also expands the prohibitions beyond only texting.

In Ohio, one of the four states where texting is still a secondary offense, lawmakers are considering legislation to increase the penalties for distracted driving. However, the proposed bill does not go so far as to make texting a primary offense.

Representative Jim Hughes (R-Columbus), a co-sponsor of the bill, hopes that this is a step towards that goal, stating unequivocally, “When [people are] driving, they need to be focused on what they’re doing. Anything else can wait.”