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Distracted Driving of all types is responsible for 80% of all car accidents. A driver can be distracted by many things: children arguing in the back seat, trying to pick up a dropped object, changing a CD in the player, putting on makeup, or just plain daydreaming. However, cell phones are involved in an overwhelming number of accidents that are classed as “distracted driving,” and the focus of new legislation, known collectively as “distracted driving laws,” has overwhelmingly been aimed at curbing talking and texting.
According to research compiled by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA), since 2002, the number of people using cell phones in some manner while driving has increased 50%. Drivers texting while driving, the most dangerous of all activities, has doubled during the same time period. Although exact figures are hard to determine, due to different state reporting systems, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 5,870 people lost their lives in cell-phone related crashes in 2008, representing 16% of all fatal crashes. Drivers under 20 are the most frequent victims, accounting for 16% of these accidents.
This problem has come to the attention of the media and the public, and more and more organizations and individuals are promoting cell phone bans in cars. In fact, “distracted driving” was Webster’s Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” for 2009. More attention is being paid to this growing problem as accident figures continue to escalate. Twenty-seven states included “distracted driving” as part of their State Highway Safety Plan (SHSP) for 2010.
Distracted Driving Laws
States have responded to the problem by passing legislation regulating the use of cell phones while driving. Nine states currently have hand-held cell phone bans, and 30 states prohibit young drivers (under 18 or under 21) from using cell phones in any form while driving. 34 states also prohibit texting while driving by law. There are currently several state legislatures considering some form of cell phone driving legislation. Most of these laws are primary laws, meaning that an officer can pull a driver over only for this violation, even if the driver is in all other ways complying with traffic laws. Utah, Maine, and New Hampshire treat cell phone laws as secondary laws, meaning the officer can cite for cell phone use in conjunction with some other traffic offense, such as speeding or reckless driving.
Further, many localities have passed their own “cell phone bans.” These laws apply only in the municipality or county in which the law is passed. Some states, however, such as Florida, prohibit local laws that conflict with or are identical to state laws, so local laws are not always enforceable.
Many states do allow “hands free” dialing and speaking while driving. Hands-free refers to technology, available on many new phones, that allows the driver to dial, answer the phone, talk, and hang up without actually touching the phone unit. This can be accomplished through the use of a Bluetooth or wired headset, a car kit which delivers sound through the speakers, or an integrated phone system in the car. Some states allow this type of communication because research has not been available to show that hands-free talking distracts drivers to the point of causing an accident. However, research on this subject is still ongoing, and may result in changes in the state laws in the future.
Many people feel that distracted driving is not a cell phone issue, but rather an issue of misunderstanding. They feel that people do not realize the danger of all distractions when driving, and how much reaction time can be reduced by simple annoyances. One study showed that texting reduces a driver’s reaction time by as much as 400%, and another showed that texting causes an 18-year-old to have identical reaction time to a 70-year-old driver. While these studies are not all-inclusive, it seems clear that distracted driving is contributing to accidents not only because of new technology but because of attitudes toward driving that must be changed to keep everyone safe.
Supporters state, however, that distracted driving laws are the first step in this process. While you cannot legislate people’s feelings, it is possible to hold people accountable for behavior that may place others in danger. In many states, the new “distracted driving laws” were passed in the hopes of getting people’s attention as much as punishing them for bad driving behavior. Fines are generally minimal for first offenses; the hope is that a small fine will not unduly burden the population, but will cause people to think before reaching for the cell phone while behind the wheel