Everyone talks about the dangers of texting and driving but most don’t see how texting affects their performance. The general attitude is “sure I shouldn’t be texting and driving, but I can handle it.” An AAA and Seventeen Magazine online survey of 1,999 teens ages 16-19 found that 86% had driven while distracted even though 84% know it’s dangerous. And, according to a 2011 Ad Council survey, 55% of teen drivers believe that is it easy to text and pay attention to driving at the same time.
The Florida legislators have just demonstrated that they are a microcosm of the values society has regarding the dangers of texting and driving: none! The legislators recently passed an anti-texting-while-driving law that clearly sends the wrong message to the motoring public –– a message implying that texting isn’t dangerous. Why is this not a good law? Let us count the ways. First problem: a driver cannot be stopped by a police officer for texting. The Florida law is not a primary offense, which means an officer can only stop a texting driver if the driver violates some other law, i.e., if the driver runs a stop sign, and the officer can see the driver was texting, then the anti-texting law is violated. The second problem: when a person is finally caught, there is a whopping $30 fine, or about the amount a person would pay for four packs of cigarettes, or four Starbucks. This inconsequential monetary fine is not the worst flaw in this law.
The worst is that the law allows drivers to text while stopped at a traffic light! WOW! Allowing drivers to text at a traffic light is the equivalent of saying, “don’t pay attention to the traffic scene; forget the need to manage space while stopped, don’t be concerned that there may be bicyclist or pedestrians crossing in front of you who are not seen as you start your car in motion.” And, “don’t be concerned if a driver approaching your stopped vehicle from the rear is also texting, because the law allows him to do so unless he crashes into your car.” Having a “law” that says it is okay to text at traffic lights encourages drivers to do so, and it is likely to get more people killed at intersections.
While stopped at a traffic light drivers should be encouraged to pay attention to conditions that are constantly changing. According to the Federal Highway Administration, each year 35 to 40 percent of all crashes take place at an intersection, which accounts for about two and a half million crashes at intersections each year. How could the Florida legislators believe that it is okay for a driver to sit at a traffic light and text? Intersections are so dangerous we refer to them as “Danger Squares.”
Picture this: A driver with his head down, engrossed in a texting conversation, is not likely to notice that the traffic light changed and the car in front is moving. At the same time, the driver to the rear is impatient and blows his horn to get the texting driver to move. The texting driver becomes startled, releases his foot from the brake while finishing the text and accelerates directly into the path of an oncoming vehicle that is making a left turn. Now, suppose the oncoming vehicle is a motorcyclist; the texting driver crashes into him; the results is a traumatic brain injury. Texting changes the life of another motorist, yet no law is violated! Or, the texting driver doesn’t see a pedestrian who is still in the crosswalk and accelerates into her. Little good would the law be for protecting the pedestrian. Now, if the pedestrian dies, a number of lives are lost, changed, and ruined because of the texting. I have family and friends living in Florida, I would not want to see any of them victimized by a driver “obeying” the law because someone believes the law is safe.
Perhaps no law will make a difference unless it takes away the temptation of texting, or the law has a consequence that a driver would not want to experience. What if, when a driver is caught texting, the phone is impounded for thirty days for the first offense? And, for the second offense, the phone and the car are impounded for sixty days. Such a law would be a countermeasure to our society’s addiction to texting. Well, is that too severe to save one life, let alone the hundreds of lives that are lost?
However, as blatantly as the government of Florida is turning a blind eye towards a solution to reduce texting crashes, there is hope from other States. New Jersey, for one, is forging ahead with consequences more than a thirty dollar fine. Fines in New Jersey range from $200 to $800 with possible license suspension depending upon past violations and outcomes of the crash. If cell phone users drive recklessly and cause injury or death, penalties would include prison time and fines up to $150,000. And, New Jersey just approved legislation that will post signs along highways warning drivers that there is an anti-texting law in effect.
For Florida, at the minimum, having the no-texting-in-traffic law as a primary offense will at least get drivers searching ahead for police officers so they can pretend they are not using the phone –– and maybe by chance they will see what they need to see to detect problems affecting their space management.
Oh, I forgot: most texters believe they can text and drive without problems. Who needs a “law” to give them permission to text at traffic lights?
About the author: Frederik Mottola, Professor Emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University and Executive Director of the National Institute for Driver Behavior, has, for the past 50 years, researched and developed techniques to help drivers learn good habits for space-management. A scientist, inventor, educator, and author, he has designed successful crash-reducing programs for corporations, municipalities, police, military, emergency vehicle operators, and traffic safety educators on national and international levels.