Cell Phones and Driving: The Effectiveness of Prohibition
April 25, 2009 /24-7PressRelease/ -- When the Washington State legislature banned the act of texting while driving, in January of 2008, it became the first state in the nation to explicitly enact such a prohibition. In July of the same year, the state followed with a ban on driving while talking with a handheld cell phone, joining a nationwide trend to regulate the technological distractions that drivers may encounter.
Drivers should pay attention to the road; no one questions this assertion. However, after several months with both bans in place, many people in Washington are still questioning the effectiveness and necessity of these laws. Although there are legitimate reasons to maintain these bans, there are also strong arguments for eliminating or modifying the existing laws.
The Current State of the Law
Under the current laws in Washington, a person is guilty of a traffic infraction if he or she operates a moving motor vehicle "while holding a wireless communication device to his or her ear" or if he or she "sends, reads, or writes a text message" while operating a moving motor vehicle.1
Both these statutes provide several exceptions. For example, tow truck drivers are explicitly exempt from the ban on cell phone usage when they are responding to disabled vehicles. Taxi drivers are exempt from the prohibition on text messaging, as long as they are relaying information to the taxi operator using a device that is permanently affixed to the vehicle. For people who are operating emergency vehicles or reporting illegal activities, both text messaging and cell phone usage are permissible.
Additionally, under both these statutes the traffic infraction is a secondary violation. This means that a police officer may only enforce this law if a driver is pulled over for a separate infraction.
Questioning the Effectiveness of These Laws
On the surface, the ban seems fairly reasonable. When responsible for safely guiding several tons of metal through the streets, people should be paying attention. Phones are distracting, and the use of handheld phones for talking or texting leaves everyone on the roads less safe. However, those opposed to these laws come equipped with several strong arguments -- most notably that the laws are neither effective nor enforceable.
These laws attempt to reduce the distractions a driver encounters in the car. The fact is though, eliminating cell phones does not eliminate distractions. Children in the car are often distracting, but no one is suggesting a ban on passengers. Finding a favorite song on an mp3 player or selecting a radio station can take just as much attention as sending a text message, but these activities are still permitted. Simply fretting over the day's events or upcoming meetings or presentations can prevent someone from truly focusing.
Furthermore, the cell phone laws have an explicit exception for people using hands-free devices. However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has concluded that hands-free talking can be as risky as holding the phone when driving. Accordingly, one might reasonably question the effectiveness of a law with such a broad and inexplicable exception. Certainly, more research is in order -- but if hands-free conversations are no safer than handheld phone conversations, the law has added prohibitions without actually making things safer.
Even assuming that these laws are effective and result in safer driving, the enforceability of the bans remains questionable. If a police officer pulls someone over, believing that he sent a text message, will the officer be checking phone logs to verify the offense? In an age when cell phones are often intertwined with mp3 players, changing the song might look very similar to sending a message.
Clearly, as the laws do exist, there is a significant amount of support for the prohibition despite the limitations. The fact is, when someone is driving while distracted, the driver is putting everyone else on the road at risk. Even if the distracted driver doesn't cause an accident, he or she can impede traffic and force other drivers to react to erratic driving. Furthermore, although it is true that drivers may face many forms of distraction, even small steps to reduce these distractions may have positive effects.
However, given the apparent limitations of the laws, the legislature may be wise to reexamine the laws and fully examine the ultimate effects of such a prohibition. If the restrictions are not having the intended effects, then perhaps a repeal or amendment of the law is in order.
1. West's Revised Code of Washington Annotated §§46.61.667-668
About Attorney Steven G. Toole, PS
Attorney Steven G. Toole's Seattle area personal injury practice includes representation of clients injured in all types of motor vehicle and bicycle accidents and accidents that occur on private or public property, and premises liability issues, as well as representing the families of victims in wrongful death cases.