Texting While Driving: Not A Secondary Matter

Some matters, such as reining in a Wall Street casino culture, taking issue with certain Supreme Court decisions or assessing climate-change ramifications, can almost seem like abstractions. Their impact may be substantial and society-altering, but in our routine lives they don’t necessarily resonate on a daily basis.

Then there’s an issue, also societally impactful, that viscerally resonates every day–at least for those of us who use a motor vehicle regularly. Texting while driving.

If you’re out at, say, 3 a.m., your chances, as you know, ratchet up considerably that an oncoming motorist may not be sober. Timing and fate are everything.

But at any hour, on any road, your chances of encountering a texting motorist are ever increasing. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, more than 400,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in the U.S. in 2012. More than 3,300 died as a result. And most people in the know consider distracted-driver data grossly underreported.

Technological timing and fate are everything.

And, oh yeah, it’s been proven that drivers are better off drunk than electronically distracted when it comes to behind-the-wheel awareness. The sobering reality: Text messaging requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver.

It’s been estimated that five seconds is the average time a driver’s eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55 mph, for example, that would be enough time to cover the length of a football field–blindfolded. So, no, it’s not the same thing as grooming or changing radio stations.

But commuting to work or going to the store shouldn’t be an existential crap shoot.

And if you’re the parents of teens, you know all too well the implications. That some things are not totally in your control: such as teenage peer pressure–and your kids’ driving friends. We now know that roughly half of all U.S. high school students aged 16 or older text or email while driving. It’s scary.

For them. For you. For me. For us.

While there’s no rebottling the telecom genie, we can, at least–at last–see adult society responding responsibly. Federal employees are prohibited from texting while driving on government business or with government equipment. And the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration bans commercial vehicle drivers from texting while driving. But Congress balked at passing a national law banning TWD that was proposed by former Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood.

More than a dozen states, however, beginning with California in 2008, now flat out ban the use of hand-held phones while driving. That, of course, would be considered draconian, nanny-state coercion in some states, including this one.

But it’s also good news that 45 states have now made texting while driving a primary offense. In other words, TWD is sufficient reason for an officer to pull over a distracted motorist before distraction becomes a highway statistic. Same as driving sans seat belt. Click-it or ticket has worked.

The bad news: Florida is one of the non-primary five. Here TWD is just a secondary offense.

And after nearly a year as a compromise between doing nothing–in the name of not infringing on personal freedoms–and making it a primary offense, the results are in. The secondary TWD law is hard to enforce. Statewide, law enforcement officials are on pace to issue about 1,800 citations in the initial year. That’s about five per day.

And Hillsborough County fares no better. There have been 47 citations given out since the law went into effect on Oct.1, 2013. That’s about five per month.

Partisans have their own take, of course. To wit:

* “It’s unenforceable. Why bother? Besides, Big Brother shouldn’t be riding shotgun.”

* “It’s unenforceable. So, let’s replace it with something that–not unlike with seat belts–is enforceable. Let’s make it a primary offense. And, no, this isn’t about personal liberties. This is about public safety and common sense.”

Unless you want to send the message that this is all wink-and-nod placation of telecom lobbyists and personal liberty purists, you make texting while driving a primary offense. And then target violators to get the message out. There’s precedent.

Unless, of course, you happen to think lives unnecessarily imperiled and lost is a secondary matter.

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