Texting while driving is suddenly a hot topic. In 2007, Washington became the first state to outlaw it. Just three years later, it's now illegal in 25 states. Kentucky is the latest to join the ban, having signing it into law on April 15 of this year. Ohio is not far behind; the Ohio House of Representatives just passed a measure and sent it to the Senate.
As cellular phones have become ubiquitous in our everyday lives, researchers, the media, and the public at large are waking up to the dangers of texting while driving, and governments are responding. The federal government has a web site devoted to pointing out the dangers of distracted driving, www.distraction.gov. Even Oprah Winfrey has gotten into the act, penning an editorial in the New York Times entitled "Dnt Txt N Drv."
Texting and Teens
This attention comes as new statistics emerge on mobile phone and text usage, particularly among teen-agers. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, text messaging is now the number one means of communication among teens, used more often than phone conversations or even face-to-face communication. Half of teens send 50 or more text messages per day, and a third send more than 100 per day.
Not surprisingly, this boom in text messaging carries over into the automobile. According to Pew, roughly half of all teens say they've been a passenger while a driver has texted behind the wheel, and a quarter report doing it themselves.
Not all police reports gather data specifically on whether phone or text messaging played a role in automobile accidents, but according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates, 21 percent of all accidents that result in injury are caused by distracted driving, which includes cell phone conversations and texting.
Putting all of this information together, states are realizing that texting and the use of other mobile devices such as phones, GPS units, and iPods in the car create a significant hazard - one that some states currently aren't officially tracking. While enacting bans on texting while driving, many states have also enacted legislation requiring police to collect information about distraction from phones or other devices on their accident forms, although neither the Ohio bill or the new Kentucky law require this.
Ohio's Proposed Law
The bill as passed by Ohio's House states that no one may drive a motor vehicle "while using an electronic wireless communications device to write, send, or read a text-based communication." It then goes on to list nine exceptions, some of which include:
- Emergency use (to contact law enforcement, fire department, et cetera)
- While parked
- Selecting or entering a name in a phone to make a call
- Using a device for navigation purposes (such as a GPS device)
- Receiving traffic or weather alerts
- Receiving text as part of a radio display
Violating the law would be a primary offense, meaning that the police could pull a driver over for texting alone, even if no other violations had occurred. (A version of the bill being considered by the Senate makes it a secondary offense, requiring some other violation before one could be pulled over). Violations would be a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of $150.
The House's version of the bill calls for an initial six-month period after the bill becomes law during which drivers would receive only a written warning, to give the public time to become aware of the new law.
Opponents of the bill point to the fact that Ohio law already bans operating a vehicle "without being in reasonable control of the vehicle" or "in willful or wanton disregard of the safety of persons or property." They argue that drivers do many things that are particularly distracting and that legislators shouldn't single out texting.
Kentucky's new anti-texting law - like Ohio's proposed bill - bans writing, sending or reading text-based communication, and carves out similar exceptions, such as for emergency use, selecting a name in a phone or use of a GPS device. Kentucky's law goes into effect in July, and has a six-month grace period, like Ohio's proposed bill.
The Kentucky law varies slightly from Ohio's in that it also allows texting while driving to "report illegal activity" or "prevent injury to a person or property." Additionally, it bans anyone under 18 from using a cell phone or other communications device for any purpose while driving, except in emergencies. Fines under the Kentucky law are $25 for a first offense and $50 thereafter.
Even the U.S. Congress is turning its attention to texting while driving. The Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act (a.k.a. the "ALERT Drivers Act") currently before Congress would require states to ban texting while driving, or face a 25 percent reduction in federal highway funds.
Pressure from Congress ensures that texting while driving will continue to be a topic in statehouses across the country in the coming years, so a ban of some sort is likely to come to most states soon.
For drivers, this may mean a change in routine, such as pulling over before reading an incoming message. For anyone who has been injured in an accident, the fact that police will increasingly be on the lookout for evidence of texting while driving could mean additional evidence will be available to help establish a personal injury case against the distracted driver responsible for the accident.