In recent years, with the advent and popularity of the cell phone, lawmakers have expressed growing concern about the occurrence of distracted driving. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines distracted driving as “any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.” The NHTSA notes that distracted driving endangers driver, passenger, and bystander safety because distractions require a driver’s visual, manual, and/or cognitive attention. According to the NHTSA, the most alarming form of distracted driving is texting while driving. Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Section 390.5 defines texting as “manually entering alphanumeric text into, or reading text from, an electronic device”.
The CFR goes on to explain that “this action includes, but is not limited to, short message service, emailing, instant messaging, a command or request to access a World Wide Web page, pressing more than a single button to initiate or terminate a voice communication using a mobile telephone, or engaging in any other form of electronic text retrieval or entry, for present or future communication.” Requiring manual, visual, and cognitive attention, texting while driving is the most dangerous cell phone-related activity and contributes to thousands of traffic accidents per year. The incidents of texting-while-driving accidents are more prevalent among younger drivers. For these reasons, many jurisdictions have made texting while driving illegal, usually crafting laws that target those who are new motor vehicle operators. While these laws typically enjoy broad support from policy makers and the public, some commentators have raised concerns that texting-while-driving laws unfairly target the young and will inhibit truck drivers’ ability to efficiently move cargo along America’s roads.
Dangers of Texting While Driving
The NHTSA reports that texting while driving is six times more dangerous than driving while drunk. In 2011, 3,331 individuals were killed in traffic accidents involving a distracted driver. That same year 370,000 people were injured as the result of distracted driving. In a study conducted by Monash University, researchers found that those who text while driving are four times more likely to be involved in a crash injuring themselves. Similarly, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute discovered that texting and driving creates a crash risk approximately 23 times worse than driving while not distracted. The actual cause of the dangers associated with texting and driving stem from the time drivers are distracted while attempting to send a text message. For example, studies show that when a driver sends a text, he or she breaks visual contact with the road for approximately 4.6 seconds. At 55 miles per hour, a car travels the length of a football field or 100 yards in this time.
Efforts to Curb Dangers
Because it poses substantial risks to drivers, passengers, and bystanders, all jurisdictions in the United States enforce some form of legislation forbidding texting while driving, and in most jurisdictions texting-while-driving laws are laws of primary enforcement. Laws of primary enforcement allow law enforcement officers to stop a vehicle and cite a driver for texting while driving, even if that driver has committed no other traffic offense. As of 2013, 41 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibited all drivers from texting while operating a motor vehicle. In all but four of these states, texting-while-driving laws are laws of primary enforcement. Of the remaining jurisdictions, three states prohibit texting while driving by bus drivers only and six states prohibit texting while driving by novice drivers only.
Opposition to Texting-While-Driving Legislation
As noted, texting-while-driving laws enjoy broad support among lawmakers and the public. Yet, some commentators have suggested that texting-while-driving laws targeting novice drivers smack of ageism. For example, Alex Koroknay-Palicz, the executive director of the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA), claims that texting-while-driving laws unfairly target younger drivers. He suggests that youth are targeted because most are under the age of 18 and cannot vote, therefore they have limited political power and cannot adequately represent their interests. He also notes that older citizens and men are statistically worse drivers than women, yet no legislation targets these groups specifically. The NYRA claims that texting-while-driving laws are discriminatory, stopgap measures that fail to address texting while driving in a meaningful, holistic way.
The American Truckers Association (ATA) has also voiced its opposition to texting-while-driving laws. The ATA alleges that texting-while-driving laws have the potential to impact the use of onboard computer systems vital to the trucking industry. In October 2009, in testimony to the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, the ATA expressed these concerns and described the indispensability of onboard computer systems that are a cost-effective way for trucking companies to exchange vital information with drivers en route.
Support for Legislation
Though certain groups have expressed concerns about the scope of texting-while-driving laws, most groups and agencies support their implementation as a means of preventing serious and fatal automobile accidents. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order forbidding federal employees from texting while driving government-owned vehicles, when using electronic equipment supplied by the government while driving, and while driving privately owned vehicles when on official government business. Similarly, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration forbid commercial and bus drivers from texting while driving; the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration banned texting while driving vehicles containing hazardous materials; and the Federal Railroad Administration banned rail employees from using cell phones or other electronic devices while working.
- Gershowitz, A. M. “Texting While Driving Meets the Fourth Amendment: Deterring Both Texting and Warrantless Cell Phone Searches.” Arizona Law Review, v.54 (2012).
- Harding, C. J. “The Failure of State Texting-While-Driving Laws.” University of Pittsburgh Journal of Technology Law and Policy, v.13 (2013).
- “Texting While Driving.” In Current Issues: Macmillan Social Science Library. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2010.
- S. Department of Transportation. “Official U.S. Government Website for Distracted Driving.” http://www.distraction.gov. (Accessed October 2013).
- Wilms, T. “It Is Time For A ‘Parental Control, No Texting While Driving’ Phone.” Forbes Business (September 18, 2012).
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