Legislators Propose "Driving While Texting" Law

By | March 14, 2007 at 4:44 PM

OLYMPIA, Wash. — During the morning rush hour on Dec. 5, the 53-year-old driver of a blue Dodge Caravan was traveling north on Interstate 5 outside Seattle when he took his eyes off the road to scan an email on his BlackBerry, the State Patrol says. And that’s how he hit the white Mazda, which clipped the green Honda, which rammed the black Toyota SUV before spinning into the other lane and plowing into a city bus. Nobody was seriously hurt. But the episode sparked a chain reaction of a different sort in the state legislature, in the form of a bill that would make it a crime to “operate a motor vehicle while reading, writing or sending electronic messages.” “I think just about everyone realizes that text messaging while driving should not be acceptable,” says Joyce McDonald, the bill’s sponsor. But the Republican member of the Washington House of Representatives also recognizes that people call it “CrackBerry” for a reason: She cheerfully admits she’d probably scan her own device on the drive to work “if I didn’t need my reading glasses to see email.” Forget DWI. The big new traffic-safety issue is DWT: Driving While Texting. Ms. McDonald is joining a crowd of politicians seeking a crackdown. In neighboring Oregon, pending bills would provide fines — up to $720 in one of them — for any driver caught texting, or holding a cellphone to an ear. And in Arizona, a bill is pending that would make DWT a ticketable offense. DWT is an extreme version of a whole new class of modern “distracted driving” issues lawmakers are wrestling with around the country, as electronic devices become an ever more important part of people’s lives, in and out of their automobiles. Lawmakers are being encouraged by insurance companies like Allstate Corp., which has added an email fanatic to its stable of “multitasker” safe-driving ads. The campaign shows the “dedicated investor,” who is balancing a BlackBerry and the business section of a newspaper on the wheel while he navigates his sports car through stop-and-go traffic. (Another scene in the ad shows a driver changing his trousers while blazing down the highway). Driving while talking on cellphones has gotten the most legislative attention. Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, California and the District of Columbia currently outlaw the use of handheld phones while driving, and 38 states are currently debating 133 bills that would regulate their use behind the wheel, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some wireless industry supporters argue that statutes barring texting while driving are too specific. What is needed, they say, is not narrowly focused legislation, but a campaign to educate the public about all driver distractions. In Washington, D.C., an industry lobby group called CTIA — The Wireless Association has begun tracking legislation, including Ms. McDonald’s bill, and scratching out a strategy to counter it. “I don’t think you’d find anyone who would say that trying to text and drive is not reckless behavior,” says Joe Farren, spokesman for the group. “If you’re being reckless, you should get a ticket.” He adds that his group has taken no formal position on text-message bills such as Ms. McDonald’s. Few driver distractions seem quite as frighteningly intrusive as attempting to read and type messages while weaving in traffic. The first reported incident of DWT may have been in Tennessee in 2005, when a man died while texting when he lost control of his pickup and plunged down an embankment. In Colorado that same year, a teenager served 10 days in jail after he struck and killed a bicyclist while texting a friend. A study conducted by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. that was released earlier this year found that 19% of all drivers text message behind the wheel — and 37% of drivers between the ages of 18 and 27. DWT seems particularly common among kids. Ms. McDonald first considered her ban last October after she visited a high school and a group of students showed her how to send text messages by cellphone. “They were sending messages secretly while they were sitting in class,” she says. “It wasn’t long before it dawned on me that they were also texting while they were driving.” The discovery enabled Ms. McDonald to find a quick co-sponsor across the aisle in Democrat Dawn Morrell, who said she had seen her own campaign manager texting behind the wheel. “Imagine these kids driving along while they’re breaking up with their boyfriends or whatever,” Ms. Morrell says. “We laugh but it’s scary.” A hearing was held recently on Ms. McDonald’s bill in an ornate legislative building adjacent to the capitol in Olympia, where she and others testified before a largely impassive group of House Transportation Committee members. The legislature has turned down cellphone legislation eight years straight. But this time, it was clear the mood had begun to shift. Many legislators seemed keen to enact some restrictions. One representative, Larry Seaquist, referred in the hearing to a bill that would “phase out” handheld wireless devices among drivers as “The Save My Wife’s Life Act.” Sprint Nextel Corp., which opposes legislation that would limit wireless devices in cars, had a lobbyist in Olympia that day. Sprint says curbing abuse is best handled through education and should focus on the full spectrum of driver distractions. The company has begun distributing a series of four posters to high schools around the country that highlight this strategy. One of the posters shows a burger and fries, while the others show a tube of mascara, a compact disc and a silver fliptop phone. The caption on the phone poster reads: “Cell Phone 4oz. Car 2,800 lbs. Taking the wheel is a ton of responsibility.” Few opponents argue that driving and texting — any more than driving and drinking — is a good idea. Instead, opponents focus on the dearth of statistics showing that wireless devices cause crashes. Indeed, there are few data suggesting that texting causes more wrecks than, say, fast-food. A study conducted by the state of Washington in 2006 blamed “driver distractions” for 7.5% of the 50,000 reported accidents during the first nine months of that year. Of that number, the study said distractions prompted by “operating a handheld communications device,” including text messaging, came in fifth, statistically in line with the grab-bag category of “driver interacting with passengers, animals or objects.” But police in Washington say not a day passes when they don’t see a case of DWT, and that the statistics may not reflect the extent of the problem. Many wrecks have an undetermined cause, and DWT data rely on driver honesty. Current state law gives drivers little incentive to blab. The reward for honesty is a ticket for negligent operation of a vehicle, which draws a flat $538 fine. The only way to independently determine whether the devices were in use is cumbersome. Police would have to get a warrant to subpoena billing records. But it would be hard to talk a judge into granting such subpoenas for a fender bender. Trooper Jeff Merrill says the driver of the Dodge Caravan on Dec. 5 would almost certainly have gotten away with his carelessness had he not confessed. “He’s been very upfront about it,” Trooper Merrill says. Trooper Merrill said the biggest problem with Ms. McDonald’s legislation may be its enforceability. Though Ms. McDonald says more than 80% of her constituents who text behind the wheel would probably knock it off if the practice were outlawed, the lawman is skeptical. “Hey, we’ve all done it one time or another, and I think people will continue to do it,” Trooper Merrill says. “But if you’re going to do it, you better be careful.”

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