Saturday, June 1, 2013

Op-Ed: National Hand-held Cell Phone Ban

Distracted Driving Overview
Distracted driving is the traffic safety issue of the 21st century and the biggest distraction goes to: cell phones.
Cell phones have become the norm in the past 20 years and a lot of people can’t resist using them while driving. Many studies have shown that distracted driving is a deadly risk and not enough is being done to restrict it.

Most drivers know that moment of panic when they were distracted by their cell phone and almost hit something or looked up and realized they were over the centerline. Drivers think they can multi-task effectively but in reality, they cannot. A 2011 psychological study attests that using a cell phone significantly impairs a driver. Common sense alone tells us that using a cell phone while driving is not safe and unfortunately some people have experienced the repercussions. The National Safety Council reports that at least 28% of crashes involve a driver texting while driving.

A study by Dr. Wilson strongly suggests that due to increased cell phone usage while driving, the number of road fatalities has increased.  Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has released their results from a naturalistic driving study that suggested that cell phone-using drivers are 3 times more likely to crash.

What have states done?
The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) is a nonprofit that works to address behavioral driving issues for states. The GHSA reports that only 11 states have banned all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. These drivers can still use hands-free devices but cannot text or dial on their phones while driving.  Some states only ban novice drivers or only ban texting and driving but still allow hand-held use. The GHSA reports that 41 states have banned texting while driving; 37 of them are primary enforcement which means officers can pull someone over without another offense taking place. There are 37 states that ban all cell phone use by novice drivers.

A ban on only novice drivers is not enough; adult drivers are culprits too. I recently spoke with a state trooper on this subject and she told me that we need legislation that is enforceable. She can’t look at a driver and decide if they are under 18 or not. She can’t make a guess and pull them over because if they aren’t breaking the law then she’s in trouble. So what happens? She doesn’t pull them over unless they are breaking another law. A texting ban is also not enough legislation but it’s better than nothing.  Talking on the phone takes one hand away from the wheel and puts your mind’s primary concentration on your conversation instead of driving.

All 50 states should have a hand-held ban on cell phone use. States have had enough time to try to implement legislation to ban this deadly risk and the federal government needs to step in and push states to enact legislation.

What should the Federal Government do?
States have had enough time to take hold of this issue and they haven’t been able to enact legislation and educate drivers. The federal government needs to be a leader and aid states in making hand-held cell phone use illegal. Just like the federal government did with impaired driving, they should to tie a legislation requirement to highway funding. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed by Congress in 1984. The federal government directed states to adopt the act as law or they would receive 10% less in highway funding. Within 4 years all states had complied.

This policy proposal is a simple requirement: pass a law and receive your money. However, to make this successful requires a myriad of supporting developments which the GHSA has pointed out in letters to Congress. Although the GHSA doesn’t push for federal legislation, they support the federal role of funding research on distracted driving, creating educational campaigns and working with enforcement officials to develop best practices.

We know that cell phone usage while driving is risky behavior but we haven’t been able to use research to quantify the risk. Other behavioral traffic safety issues, such as drunk driving and seat belt usage, have a lot of research confirming their dangers. Distracted driving is a more recent issue and doesn’t have the years of research. The data is also very difficult to obtain because drivers are reluctant to confess cell phone usage. Naturalistic studies are a great way to study the effects of distracted driving because they can put drivers in real world scenarios and watch how cell phone usage impacts their driving. The federal government should continue supporting studies such as the 100-Car naturalistic driving study which studies driver behavior just before a crash or close call.

As with drunk driving, there needs to be a national educational campaign and an effort to change the driving culture. Driver’s attitudes need to be changed. A hand-held cell phone law in every state should be easier to enforce but their needs to be collaboration with enforcement agencies in order to develop best practices to enforce this law. Similar to work zone safety enforcement programs, the federal government should also provide grants to target cell phone use.

Arguments against federal government role in legislation
Many people will argue that it’s the states job to implement legislation and in a lot of cases I think they are right. However, in this case there isn’t anything that changes from state to state in regards to cell phone usage. In every state, people drive distractedly and crash their cars into other cars, bicyclists, pedestrians, power poles, etc.  There is no reason that one state should ban cell phone usage and another shouldn’t. Similar to impaired driving, cell phone usage is behavioral safety issue and the reduction of this risky behavior can be achieved in the same manner.

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