Distracted driving of any kind can be instantly dangerous. Each April the federal and state governments conduct a public awareness campaign on the dangers of distracted driving that bombards motorists with media messages which leads to increased command-and-control enforcement. There can be many different distractions for drivers but among the most controversial is the use of a mobile electronic device while driving. Drivers should normally refrain from texting while driving. The best way to encourage behavioral change is through ongoing driver’s education and awareness not through government micromanagement. Motorists need to beware that distracted driving does not become the new drunk driving in both stigma and penalties.
Much has been written about the increase in overall traffic fatalities for the past two years which many attribute to distracted driving. The federal government cannot ban distracted driving and instead has encouraged statehouses to deal with the problem. Thirty-nine states have already banned text messaging while driving. Ten states plus Washington DC have banned the use of hand held phones entirely. Should states then criminalize behavior that all drivers engage in?
Zendrive recently completed the largest distracted driving study to date with three million anonymous drivers over a three-month period. They discovered that mobile devices are used in some capacity in 88 percent of car trips. Drivers during the study period made 570 million trips covering 5.6 billion cumulative miles. The study found that the average use of a mobile device was 3.5 minutes per hour of driving which is about six percent of a trip. These activity rates reinforce the need to educate everyone on the possible safety consequences of cell phone use while driving. But it does not mean that the government should legislate everything that one does while driving.
The law enforcement efforts to target drivers during April as often leads to a variety of other types of tickets being issued as well.
For example, Moorhead, Minnesota city police, the Clay Country Sheriff’s office and the state highway patrol teamed up one Wednesday afternoon this month by deploying a local school bus to spy on unsuspecting motorists. The four-hour campaign nabbed 20 drivers using electronic mobile devices. In total, officers stopped 73 vehicles and issued additional citations for no seat belts and invalid licenses. Cops in the school bus say they saw additional kinds of distracted driving such as eating with both hands, reading while driving, having a dog in the lap while driving and eating with one hand and texting with the other while driving.
In a much larger effort called Operation Hang-up, New York law enforcement recently handed out 15,000 tickets over the five-day campaign. In the Utica area, State Police Troop D issued a total of 1,287 tickets during the operation, including 124 for distracted driving, 354 for speeding, 19 for driving while intoxicated, 48 for child restraint or seat belt violations, and 17 for failure to move over. Operation Hang-up was funded by the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee which awards federal highway safety grants, i.e., taxpayer money, for these kinds of campaigns.
Part 2 will delve further into what is in store for drivers with regard to the future of distracted driving enforcement.