Will a California-Style Texting Ban Make the Nation Safer?

Four Senate Democrats last week introduced the Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers (ALERT) which bans text messaging while driving in all 50 states. Lead sponsor Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) believes that “drivers will finally be held responsible for dangerous behavior that puts the public at risk.”

ALERT is modeled after a similar texting ban in California, which invites a closer look at that law’s track record. By targeting specific technologies over behaviors, the evidence suggests, California’s law has actually made it easier for drivers to avoid responsibility, which may make the roads even more dangerous

Few dispute the obvious dangers of sending text messages or e-mails while driving. A study released last week by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that texting increases accident risk 23-fold. As with any hazardous action behind the wheel, however, this behavior is clearly prohibited by California’s existing statutes on reckless driving. Does it help to have a separate law for texting technology?

Special provisions for one technology weaken the existing statutes by causing law enforcement to focus on a single activity instead of the reckless behaviors resulting from that activity. Because drivers can easily conceal this particular activity, California’s text messaging ban has been largely ineffective. Since the law took effect on January 1, the CHP has cited only 712 drivers statewide. This does not signify broad compliance with the law. According to a recent survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, one in seven drivers admitted to texting while driving in the past 30 days.

Technology-specific laws further compromise safety by generating confusion and encouraging other reckless activities. As soon as lawmakers begin micromanaging which activities constitute reckless driving, they imply that any activity not addressed must be legal by default. Therefore, when the legislature specifically bans “text-based communication” on smart phones, drivers may assume it still legal to use these devices for gaming, web surfing, or watching videos.

Addressing technologies instead of behavior also forces lawmakers to render arbitrary judgments on the relative safety risk of every new innovation as it evolves. As a result, they risk not only banning safe technologies, but also condoning dangerous ones.

In 2006, for example, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring drivers to use hands-free devices for voice calls, declaring that it would “save lives by making our roads safer.” Such is not the case, according to extensive research released in July by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which found no differences “in safety relevant behavior and performance between using hand-held and hands-free communications devices while driving.”

In certain cases, such as alcohol, lawmakers have determined that specific laws are necessary to create harsher penalties than afforded under existing law. California’s texting ban, unfortunately, actually weakens punishment for this behavior. Under current law, drivers cited for reckless driving face imprisonment and fines up to $1000. Two offenses within a year trigger license suspension. Under the special exemption created for text messaging, drivers face only a fine of $20 for the first offense, and $50 for each subsequent offense. The law does not issue points against a driver’s license, so there are no additional consequences for repeat offenders.

According to a study released last month by the California State University at Fresno, these weaker penalties encourage drivers to flaunt the law. Of 409 cell-phone-using college students surveyed, nearly 50 percent were aware of the law, and yet still admitted to texting routinely while driving.

Technology evolves faster than the pace of legislation. Federal lawmakers should learn the lessons of California’s experience, and allow law enforcement the flexibility to punish behavior, not technology. Regardless of whether drivers are holding a notebook, a smart phone, or a typewriter, when reckless driving laws target reckless driving, drivers will get the message.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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