Texting ban a frivolous focus while bigger issues go unaddressed
Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Updated: Thursday, January 26, 2012 15:01
Without a doubt, texting while driving is a dangerous activity. But do we really need a law to single it out?
Currently, texting while driving falls under the categories of careless or reckless driving, depending upon whether or not a crash was caused during the activity.
If the Florida Legislature has its way, that could change before the end of the year.
On Dec. 7, the Florida Senate Transportation Committee voted 10-0 in favor of Senate Bill 416, a partial ban on the use of personal electronic devices (PED) while driving.
Three days later, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a recommendation for a "complete nationwide ban" on all PEDs.
SB 416: Use of Wireless Communications Devices While Driving, also known as the "Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law," passed quietly into its third Senate committee last week with only one vote of opposition when the Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities Committee voted 12-1 in favor of the bill before sending it to the Budget Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations.
If passed, the texting ban would not allow officers to pull motorists over for texting.
Instead, texting while driving would be considered a "secondary" offense — a sort of "and since I've got you pulled over for something else, let me add this to the ticket"-type of infraction.
But in spite of the name, texting is not the only activity SB 416 is set to ban. Reading texts, emails or browsing web pages will also be prohibited.
However, both SB 416 and the NTSB recommendation include exceptions that could spell trouble in future attempts at enforcement.
For instance, using your PED for navigation purposes, such as GPS or reading Google maps, would be permitted. It would also still be legal to use your phone or iPad to read traffic and weather reports while driving.
If your phone is equipped with functions or applications that read your incoming texts aloud, or if you have a voice-to-text option, you would legally be in the clear.
With these, and more, exceptions, SB 416 might be difficult to enforce, even with subpoenaed records. Chuck Hamby, who handles media relations for Verizon Wireless here in Florida, was "reasonably certain" but unable to verify that cell phone data records could not be used to differentiate between a spoken and a manually entered text.
Nor could they be used to verify a text had been read as opposed to spoken by an app. Hamby did indicate, however, that automatic updates and refreshes from open apps are unlikely to be confused with data downloaded while browsing the web.
According to Hamby, Verizon's official stance on texting while driving is, "The first and only responsibility of a motorist is to drive." Then he added his opinion, "There is no instance when it's appropriate. It's not worth it."
FGCU students Chelsea Cicero and Arielle Manganiello are both in favor of the proposed law.
"If it stops people (from texting while they drive) it's good," Cicero said.
"No message is that important," Manganiello said.
Cicero and Manganiello had no problems listing completely legal activities that are at least as dangerous as texting while driving.
Eating, putting on makeup and using an iPod were mentioned by Manganiello. Cicero added changing the stations on the radio and other passengers in the car to the list.
Certainly any prolonged distraction could cause a dangerous situation. Will a texting ban open the door for further legislation on every conceivable driving distraction? Or is it just the latest hot and trendy issue that no one dares to stand against?
As an example, the NTSB's recommendations are primarily because of a crash in Gray Summit, Mo., in August 2010 that made national news. There were 38 injuries and two fatalities, including the driver who "sent or received" 11 text messages in the minutes leading up to the crash.
Driver distraction was listed as the "most likely" cause of the crash, even though the two-year investigation revealed the driver was fatigued due to "cumulative sleep debt and acute sleep loss, which could have resulted in impaired cognitive processing or other performance decrements."
Money is being spent to focus on texting, but driving while tired is ignored. Yet it would be difficult to argue driving while too tired is safe. Take a moment and think about all of the things that might distract you while you drive: the flashing billboard, your water bottle that just rolled to the floor, the CD that you just can't seem to find on your front seat, your obnoxious drunk friend who needed a ride home from the bar or the fight your just had with your girlfriend or boyfriend.
Creating laws that target one form of distracted driving while ignoring others sends the wrong message. What the Florida Senate and the NTSB should really be saying is "Pay attention when you are driving."
SB 416 has a target enforcement date of Oct. 12.