Texting While Driving: Is Law or Technology the Answer?

People are increasingly aware that texting while driving is dangerous. A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 94% of people consider reading or sending texts while driving “unacceptable.”

In most places, driving while texting is against the law.

As of September 2014, 44 US states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands, have laws that prohibit text messaging for all drivers. Of the six remaining states, four prohibit texting for new drivers, and three prohibit texting by school bus drivers.

Despite the laws, and despite the known risks, about one-third of drivers admit to sending or reading texts while in motion.

Which is Worse: Texting or DUI?

Texting While DrivingMany people are surprised to learn that texting while driving can actually be more dangerous than driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol – i.e., driving while intoxicated (DUI/DWI).

Car and Driver magazine did an experiment to compare the effects of alcohol with smartphone use. The magazine equipped a car with a red light that flashed to tell the driver to brake, then took the car and some drivers to an abandoned airstrip.

The magazine tested the drivers at speeds of 35 and 75 miles per hour, to set the baselines for their response time.

Then the magazine tested the drivers again while they were using smartphones and under the influence of alcohol – though not both at the same time.

The experiment revealed that at 70 miles per hour:

  • Driving while intoxicated increased the driver’s braking distance by 11 feet.
  • Sending a text message increased the driver’s braking distance by 70 feet.

Thus, the texting driver is far more likely than a drunk driver to fail to stop in time for a red light, a stop sign, a stopped car ahead – or a child in a crosswalk.

(Of course, drunk drivers have more than just their reaction time impaired.)

Radar Guns to Detect Texters

If anti-texting laws and the knowledge that texting while driving is unsafe aren’t enough to deter the behavior, what is?

Several technological fixes are now available or are in development.

Tech Times reports that ComSonics of Harrisonburg, Virginia has developed a radar gun that can detect – and differentiate between -- the radio frequencies of voice, text, and data transmissions emitted from mobile devices. Being able to tell the difference will be especially useful to law enforcement in states where talking on the phone using a hands-free device is legal but texting is not.

Another technology is being developed by Scott Tibbitts, a former NASA engineer, as reported by the New York Times.

Tibbitts was inspired to design a solution when he arrived for a business meeting in 2008, only to discover that the person he was scheduled to meet with had just been killed in an accident caused by a teenager who was said to have been texting at the time.

Tibbitts’ device plugs into a port that has been standard in cars since 1996. The box sends a signal that the car is moving, and the phone sends a message about its location. His company’s servers can then determine who is driving, and block texts accordingly. The servers can also send an automated message that the phone’s owner is unavailable.

Should the Laws Change?

According to a University of Kansas psychologist who studies compulsive texting by drivers, one problem is that some laws about cell-phone use are unclear and hard to enforce. He said that the answer is for drivers to be pulled over anytime they’re seen by law enforcement officers using a phone in any way. 

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