What About Driving While Confused About Distracted Driving Laws?

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo correctly diagnoses the problem with bans on texting, cell phone use, and other forms of distracted driving . . .

During the last five years, 34 states have passed laws that ban texting while driving. The laws in each of those states differ widely—some make it illegal to “send” texts, while others prohibit “electronic communication” as well as “reading” texts. Each of these versions would make Siri-based texting verboten, because even if you dictate a message, you’re still, technically, sending some kind of electronic communication (and if you glance at the screen to make sure Siri correctly transcribed your message, you’re reading it).

This is ridiculous. Sure, it’s a good idea to discourage texting behind the wheel. But the laws’ failure to anticipate voice-texting illustrates the larger problem with legal strictures on automotive technology: The laws are narrow, annoyingly arbitrary, and inconsistent across state lines. What’s more, they’re minimally enforced and consequently ineffective—there is no evidence that texting laws have reduced accident rates…

The worst thing about these laws is their opacity. Because enforcement is spotty—I see people talking into handheld cellphones all the time—and because few of these specific tech questions have been raised in court, nobody knows how we can use our devices. In some ways, the mish-mash of rules makes enforcement more difficult. If you see a guy typing on his phone while driving, should you call the cops? If he’s otherwise driving safely, I wouldn’t—he could just be dialing a number, which is legal.

…but he then proposes a solution that will make all of those problems worse.

A better system wouldn’t make distinctions about what we do on our gadgets, but would instead look at the effects of our actions. The best rule would simply say, Don’t do anything in your car that could be unsafe. In 2009, Maine adopted just such a policy. Its law doesn’t make any particular technology illegal in the car. Instead, it bans “distracted driving”—driving while you’re engaged in any task that could impair you. This obviously includes texting, but the law is expansive enough to outlaw other bad driving habits—eating, applying make-up, or reading a roadmap. Theoretically, it could also allow some safer uses of technology, like punching an address into your GPS while you’re stopped, or asking Siri to remind you to call your doctor when you get home.

Theoretically, sure. But you’ve just taken the problem of too many jurisdictions having varying definitions of distracted and made it exponentially worse. Now whether or a motorist has violated the law is at the individual discretion of every police officer in the country. You now have about 600,000 different definitions of distraction. Some studies have shown that having kids in the back seat is actually more distracting then a .08 BAC or talking on a cell phone. That in theory could now be illegal. So could fumbling with your CD player. Or glancing down to change songs on the iPod that’s plugged into your car stereo. I’d think you’d very quickly be looking at a logjam of cases in which traffic courts are asked to sort out what’s an acceptable distraction and what isn’t.

The idea would also make the enforcement problem much, much worse. How does a police officer look into your car to determine whether or not your eyes are on the road when you’re whizzing by at 55 mph? If the cops is actually driving next to you, isn’t asking cops to gaze into the interiors of other cars on the road itself a pretty significant distraction? Averted eyes aren’t likely to be caught on a police dash cam, either.  In fact, the only time a cop would be able to clearly see what you’re doing, or whether you’re looking squarely at the road, is when you’re driving very slowly or stopped, which of course are the times when driver distraction is least dangerous.

When you put such a vague determination of lawbreaking solely at the discretion of cops, you also open the door to abuse. Pretext stops for drug profiling just got a lot easier. Meeting ticket quotas (yeah I know, those don’t exist!) and blanket revenue generating get easier too. Forget installing speed cameras. If the city needs revenue, just quietly instruct city cops to loosen up their definition of distracted for a while. Given the examples we’ve seen of cities jeopardizing public safety by shortening yellow lights in order to generate revenue, or cops in New York City planting drugs on people to meet arrest quotas, it hardly seems far-fetched.

The simplest solution here is to only pull over and ticket people when they commit actual traffic violations. If you want to raise the fines for people who commit infractions likely caused by driver distraction–swerving into other lanes, for example–go for it. It might even make sense to add some extra punishment for people who cause accidents while distracted, provided you can prove they were distracted at the time of the accident. Or just raise fines and penalties across the board. Though it’s also at least worth asking why we’re having this discussion in the first place. It isn’t at all clear that this is an urgent problem. Roadway fatalities per passenger mile have fallen dramatically over the last 20 years, the same period that all these new driver distractions have become so common.

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51 Responses to “What About Driving While Confused About Distracted Driving Laws?”

  1. #1 |  Howard Quivers | 

    I think I’m starting to see now why they’re saying that the number of criminal trials are exceeding civil trials: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/11/17/criminal-court-trials-exceed-number-civil-trials/