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How can the ban on texting while driving be better enforced?

January 15, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

Should all hand-held devices be banned for people driving in cars? In Michigan, there are less than 3,000 “texting” tickets per year, but 2.5 million texting drivers

texting while drivingThe science has shown that texting when driving is as dangerous as drinking and driving.  But despite comparable dangers posed to the public, the enforcement and penalties for texting when driving barely exists today.  I recently had a “texting week,” where I wrote about Michigan’s weak penalties for texting while driving compared to other states throughout the country, and when compared to Michigan’s own penalties for drinking and driving.

As states like Michigan are learning, a rule without enforcement is just a suggestion. Passing laws that prohibit drivers from texting while driving is only half the battle against the very real dangers that distracted driving poses for other motorists on the roads.

Enforcing texting laws is the missing other half of the equation.

Consider what is happening in Michigan: Despite estimates that approximately 2.5 million drivers have texted while driving, tickets for texting while driving have not  reached 3,000 in any single year since the texting law went into effect in July 2010.

Now flip that around: Imagine 2.5 million drivers who were driving drunk behind the wheel, but only 3,000 were ever arrested. If texting is as dangerous as drinking, then that’s a terrifying thought.

Dangers of texting while driving

The evidence of the dangers of texting while driving is abundant and undisputed:

  • For instance, during debate on what would become Michigan’s ban on texting while driving, MCL 257.602b, lawmakers made specific mention of the 2009 study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute the Virginia, which concluded:“Text messaging made the risk of crash or near-crash event 23.2 times as high as non-distracted driving.”
  • In a ground-breaking test in 2009, Car and Driver Magazine determined that texting while driving was more dangerous than drunk driving because driver reaction time was considerably slower when reading and writing a text message than when the driver was intoxicated.
  • In 2012, Forbes reported that texting while driving “[i]s 6x more dangerous than driving while intoxicated.”

Tickets for texting and driving

Since Michigan texting ban took effect on July 1, 2010, enforcement of the law has hardly been overwhelming.

Despite its status as a “primary” offense, which means it can be the sole basis for a stop by the police, texting while driving has not even generated 3,000 tickets in any single year.

According to the Judicial Data Warehouse, there were only 415 tickets for texting while driving in 2010; 850 in 2011; 1,211 in 2012; and, 2,284 between January and June of 2013.

Given there may be approximately 2.5 million Michigan drivers who are texting while driving, one would expect the number of “texting” tickets to be much higher.

Approximately 31% of drivers in the U.S. reported reading and/or sending text (and e-mail) messages while driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s study, “Mobile Device Use While Driving.”

There are approximately 8 million registered drivers in Michigan, according to the Insurance Institute of Michigan. (“2013 IIM Fact Book,” page 29)

Michigan only imposes a small fine for texting while driving – $100 for the first offense and $200 for the second and subsequent offenses. You can read about the penalties here.

To stop texting, ban all hand-held use of mobile devices while driving

In its article, “Do Texting Bans Really Prevent Fatal Accidents?,” The Atlantic reported on the results from a study conducted by two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers:

“[P]olice have a hard time enforcing the texting law in the absence of a universal ban against handheld use. This conclusion makes sense: consider the difficulty of distinguishing a driver who’s illegally texting and driving from someone who’s legally driving and dialing. If drivers are allowed to use their phones sometimes, enforcing specific types of phone use becomes nearly impossible.”

*    *    *

“Several clear policy implications emerge here. … [E]ven states [like Michigan] that make texting a ‘primary’ offense must maintain heightened enforcement to sustain the benefits of the law. And … the easiest way to facilitate strong enforcement is to ban handheld mobile usage in general.”

The conclusion is that the real answer may lie in banning all hand-held use of mobile devices while driving.

What do you think?

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