Gradually, states and local jurisdictions are getting stricter and harsher about regulating cell phone usage while driving a vehicle. For example, in Virginia, several laws have prohibited texting while driving, and increased the fines you’ll pay if you’re found using a cell phone while driving and committing another offense. In fact, 47 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have an outright ban on text messaging while driving.
So why are these restrictions getting tighter and more punitive, and is there any end in sight?
There are several motivations responsible for this trend:
- The risk of distracted driving. According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least nine people per day are killed as a result of accidents from distracted driving, with more than 1,000 additional personal injuries. In addition, nearly 20 percent of all crashes in 2010 were the result of distracted driving—many of which were distractions from a cell phone or mobile device. In a hypothetical scenario where an outright ban on distractions like these could result in the public no longer getting distracted, a piece of legislation could prevent 20 percent of all crashes, preventing thousands of injuries and saving thousands of lives per year in the process.
- Increased opportunities for distraction. There are also more opportunities for distraction than ever before. Mobile devices are, of course, more ubiquitous than they’ve ever been, and they’re only becoming more common. On top of that, there are more mobile apps to choose from, more sources of notifications, and an increasing fixation on digital life. That cumulatively results in more distracted driving, more injuries and fatalities from distracted driving, and a more pressing motivation for politicians to take action.
- Availability of hands-free options. It’s also worth noting that there are more handheld options available to substitute for functions you may need a phone for. This makes it harder to generate a feasible excuse for why someone would need to operate a phone while driving; for example, if you’re able to receive audio directions with a hands-free device, why would you need to stare at the screen of your phone for GPS purposes? If you can carry on a conversation with a family member without the need to hold onto your phone, why wouldn’t you take that option? There’s never truly been a “need” to be distracted with a digital device while driving, but the availability of hands-free options just makes politicians more inclined to follow through with a ban.
- Pressure from other areas. There’s also mounting pressure due to actions taken in other jurisdictions. Let’s say one state passes a statewide ban on texting and driving, and they see their fatality rate plummet by 20 percent. Victims of distracted driving accidents in a neighboring state will campaign aggressively to get their politicians to try a similar piece of legislation. After several states have followed this pattern, it becomes harder for politicians to make excuses for why their state hasn’t followed suit.
Are Laws Enough?
Unfortunately, most distracted driving laws are based on a presumption that the mere existence of a law is enough to discourage a behavior. In reality, things are a bit more complex. People are still going to carry their smartphones with them practically everywhere, including the car, and all it takes is one new text or app notification to take their eyes off the road.
To make things worse, millions of people genuinely believe they’re disproportionately “good” at texting and driving; in other words, they feel they can continue to drive safely, with little to no risk of an increased accident, while operating their phone. This overconfidence leads people to believe that this legislation isn’t necessarily for them; it’s for all the people who are “bad” at texting and driving. Accordingly, they’re less likely to follow the law, and more likely to hide their texting and driving in an effort to avoid punishment.
According to some research, there is a consistent correlation between the introduction of new traffic safety regulations and a decline in auto injuries and fatalities. So while new laws may not be enough to completely eradicate problem behaviors, they are enough to make a difference.
It’s unlikely that the ratcheting severity and frequency of new distracted driving laws is going to subside anytime soon. And because we know that distracted driving is dangerous and new laws are capable of reducing distracted driving, this is universally a good thing. Challenge your expectations if you’re one of the people who believe they can multitask while driving successfully, and otherwise, make sure you follow the traffic laws designed to keep you and other drivers safe.