February 11, 2013

Outlaw texting while driving

The following editorial appeared in The (Columbia) State on Sunday:

The following editorial appeared in The (Columbia) State on Sunday:

It's far too simplistic to say that South Carolina's roads are among the nation's deadliest because we are one of just five states with absolutely no limits on drivers sending and receiving text messages. After all, our roads were among the nation's deadliest long before anyone had ever heard of texting.

But as long as we do have some of the nation's deadliest highways — only Montana has more deaths per vehicle mile traveled — it's not simplistic to say we need to do something to make our roads safer.

The most important thing we can do is step up enforcement, since our biggest dangers are people driving too fast, refusing to yield and driving after drinking too much — all of which are illegal.

The most efficient thing we can do is outlaw practices that anyone with even a modicum of sense can see are insanely dangerous. Topping that list: sending and receiving text messages while driving.

Do other activities also distract drivers' attention? Of course so. But not nearly as much; even talking on a cell phone pales in comparison to texting. One federal study found that texting makes a driver 23 times more likely to crash. Not 23 percent. Twenty-three times.

Highway safety experts say three things cause distracted driving: taking your mind off of driving, taking your hands off the wheel and taking your eyes off the road. As examples of dangerous distractions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists texting, using a cell phone, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading, using a navigation system, watching a video and adjusting a radio or CD player.

But because texting demands our visual, manual and cognitive attention, the agency says, it is “by far the most alarming distraction.”

And none of the other distractions is proliferating at the rate of texting. In a national study last year, 58 percent of high school seniors said they had texted or emailed while driving during the previous month; 43 percent of high school juniors acknowledged they did the same thing. That's not just youthful risk-taking. That's the way of life for a generation addicted to the constant feedback of its electronic devices.

We can debate how dangerous it is to talk on a cell phone while driving, whether experienced drivers are able to compensate for the distraction and whether that should be banned. But you simply cannot argue that it's safe to take your eyes off the road long enough to compose or read a message — no matter how brief — on a tiny screen. That you're addicted to.

Besides the “don't ban texting unless you ban babies in the car” argument, critics like to call a texting ban a “big government” intrusion into people's lives. Yes, people really do say things that idiotic. By that logic, speed limits are a “big government” intrusion. And laws that ban driving through red lights. And any highway law. Because texting while driving does the same thing as driving too fast and driving through stop lights: It endangers the driver, the passengers and everyone else on the road.

Fortunately, there's a simple way to get around “big government” intrusion into your text life: Don't do it while driving on the “big government” roads. And there's a simple way our Legislature can make our highways safer: Outlaw texting while driving.

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