How NOT to Stop Texting and Driving

Texting-while-driving bans are all the fad with state governments trying to reduce collisions caused by distracted drivers.

The problem with the political logic is that it assumes bans work. Consider the grandaddy of bans–Prohibition in the US. It made alcohol illegal but did nothing to change the public’s desire for it. Prohibition laws were successful in creating a new class of behavior–creative (and lucrative) ways around the law.

This is just what texting bans seem to do. They don’t work, and a report from the Highway Loss Data Institute indicates that they may make the problem worse. Why? My 30-second self-analysis shows that there are three factors to why I text and drive. First, I feel compelled to stay connected. Second, I think texting can be discreet enough to evade penalty, a new behavior. Third, I am a poor judge of reaction times. A “ban on texting” is not really a ban at all, but a law that states anyone caught will be punished. We (drivers) have either ignored the penalty or have taken measures to avoid being caught, such as keeping the phone out of sight. I misjudge how distracting texting can be and want to stay in the know, so the bans encourage evasive behavior, further separating my attention from the road.

Better solutions? I don’t know for certain. But to start, any effort to control the problem must recognize that many people feel compelled to stay plugged in. Is there a safer way to allow that, such as displays embedded in the windshield? Then, to get at the heart of the matter, the interests of drivers must be addressed. Make it harder for me to justify the behavior, not by threat of punishment, but by appealing to my self-interest (undoubtedly the most important element in any negotiation). Teach me about reaction times.

Car and Driver magazine did an informal study of the effects of texting on driver reaction times (see below). It shows how many additional feet are needed to stop when reading a text, writing a text, or while drunk.

(from Car and Driver)

Of course, if it’s bans we must have, then the best way to be assured that texting and driving are forever divorced is simply to ban driving. Driving is much easier to spot than a driving texter.

Comments are closed.