NMA E-Newsletter #198: I Spy With My Little Eye

Over the last few years, the NMA has called attention to the problems associated with bans on cell phone use and texting while driving. Studies find that bans simply don’t reduce accidents, and drivers don’t pay attention to them. Plus there are more effective ways (and adequate laws already on the books) to address all forms of distracted driving.


Texting bans, in particular, are problematic to enforce. Consider this: while texting behind the wheel is banned in 38 states, making a phone call or looking at a map on a handheld device is not. In many places, simply holding a phone cannot be the sole basis for receiving a ticket. The old thumb has to be hard at work banging out a message. And even then, the driver could be making a call. How can police really tell what drivers are up to behind the wheel?


Increasingly, the answer is to spy on them. Thanks to a grant from NHTSA, that’s exactly what police in Connecticut and Massachusetts will be doing. The money is being used to test novel ways to discourage texting while driving, including placing police spotters on overpasses to peer down into vehicles as they pass by. How on earth spotters will be able to tell if a driver’s thumbs are moving in a suspicious manner (especially at highway speeds) is unclear. When in doubt, the answer will likely involve a ticket.


Officials in Bismarck, North Dakota, are trying a different approach. Police in unmarked SUVs and high-riding trucks drive around peering down into vehicles. When they spy the telltale thumb flailing, they radio a patrol car to perform a traffic stop. Interestingly, police followed one driver for 15 blocks before pulling her over. If she was posing such a threat why not pull her over on the spot?


The first two-day “texting sting” yielded 31 citations. A Bismarck police spokesperson hailed it a success, and the department is planning more such operations. But was it really that successful? Police admitted they could have potentially pulled over twice as many drivers, but they just didn’t have enough evidence to make the charges stick.


Clearly, enforcing texting bans requires a more comprehensive approach. It’s just too difficult to really see what drivers are up to using such outdated methods.


Perhaps law enforcement should follow the lead of ignition interlock suppliers who now include in-vehicle cameras with their systems. Requiring all cell phone users to install monitoring cameras in their cars would surely be a more effective means to detect and modify aberrant behavior behind the wheel. Or, if NHTSA felt like spreading around more grant money (lots more) it could implement the buddy system. Require a live police officer to ride in your car with you on every trip to monitor your driving behavior. That would certainly do the trick.


Or, we could try the approach the NMA has advocated for years: First, implement public awareness campaigns and enforcement efforts focused on education not punishment. Second, instead of enacting more laws and more bans, use the distracted driving laws already in place.

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