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Texting and driving — how do you outlaw stupid?

If people were aware enough to know the nuances of laws concerning phones, they certainly would be aware enough to understand the dangers of texting while driving.
If people were aware enough to know the nuances of laws concerning phones, they certainly would be aware enough to understand the dangers of texting while driving.
Pat Wellenbach, AP

Are people aware of what the law says?

Let me rephrase that, slightly. Are Americans, many of whom can’t name the vice president, let alone their representative at the state Legislature, aware of the details and nuances in specific state laws?

One Utah lawmaker, Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, seems to think so. He believes a lot of drivers in this state now hold their cellphones on their laps while they drive because last year’s Legislature passed a bill outlawing the use of a phone while driving for just about anything except talking or looking up an address.

He is sponsoring a bill this year that would lighten up a bit on the restrictions. If it passes, you soon would be able to access the Internet to listen to music.

I don’t mean to pick on Anderegg. A lot of lawmakers like to dive into the minutiae of do’s and don’ts that overestimate the civic awareness of average citizens.

After all, if people truly were aware of the current law, they wouldn’t need to hold their phones on their laps at all. They would just need to memorize the sentence, “But officer, I was just using my phone to access a GPS app and find an address.”

Cellphone use behind the wheel is most definitely a first-world problem. It represents the deadly intersection between wealth and a perceived entitlement to instant communication and entertainment under all circumstances.

But it also represents the sometimes frustrating limits on society’s collective ability to make people stop doing things that obviously are both stupid and dangerous. As Utah Gov. Gary Herbert once famously said a few years ago about people who carelessly start wildfires, "We can meet together and pass law after law after law. But you can't pass a law that outlaws stupid."

When it comes to cellphone use behind the wheel, “stupid” isn’t even a matter for debate.

The website distraction.gov says 421,000 people were injured in accidents in 2012 due to distracted driving, although I imagine it’s difficult to know for sure after a telephone becomes a flying missile that shatters upon impact. The site also says about 660,000 drivers are manipulating cellphones “at any given daylight moment across America.”

And while research has shown a typical driver going 65 mph can travel the length of a football field in the time it takes to read a text, this isn’t the only problem posed by a phone. Researchers at the University of Utah have found that using hands-free devices for talking isn’t much safer.

Siri can be mentally distracting. From my own experience, she can prompt rage when she gets an address wrong.

And yet, for all the public service messages, graphic television ads and legislative actions in recent years, the problem doesn’t seem to be disappearing. Iowa, for instance, banned texting and driving in 2010. The year before, 761 accidents were caused by distracting devices in that state. Last year, the number was 768.

After several years of decline, traffic fatalities in Utah jumped by 16 percent in 2014, according to the Utah Department of Transportation. Twenty-five of the 256 deaths were attributed to distracted driving.

But then, officials told KSL nearly half the victims were not wearing seat belts, and who hasn’t heard it’s safer to buckle up?

And so, lawmakers can go on quibbling over the details of what people can and can’t do with a phone while driving. The truth is it’s still dangerous to look at a GPS app or to talk on the phone, even with a hands-free device. The only possible exceptions would be to make a call for emergency help. Even then, however, drivers can pull over before dialing.

But, sorry lawmakers, most drivers don’t mentally reference the Utah codebook when the little ringer signals an incoming message.

If people were aware enough to know the nuances of laws concerning phones, they certainly would be aware enough to understand the dangers of texting while driving.

Put that one in the next omnibus bill outlawing stupid.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.