Virtual Voices

Don't mess with texting

Issues

The California state ban on texting while driving has been in force now for two years. The behavior in question is the absolutely bone-headed practice of using your thumb or thumbs to type out a text message on your cell phone's keyboard while half-heartedly trying to keep your car between the white lines at speeds ranging from 40 to 70 mph. You can watch people attempt this either at the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus, where you have to pay to see such daring feats, or on any given street or highway. The difference is that, outside the circus, these obsessive texters kill people. They drive off the road and kill pedestrians, or they cross the center line and drive smack into oncoming traffic.

Texting while driving increases the chance of an accident by eight times. It's like driving drunk. The Columbian reports that "texting drivers look down at their phones for an average of 5 seconds, about a football field's length while driving at highway speeds." It's hard to see the brake light ahead of you when you are busy typing "LOL" and stuff. To date, 31 states have joined California in the ban.

Now that the California legislature, in its wisdom, has made texting while driving illegal, people in the Golden State are now safe, right? Well, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Texting behind the wheel in Southern California, for example, has doubled since the law went into effect. Even worse, studies have shown that banning the practice actually increases texting-related accidents. Facing the irresistible urge to text, people hold their cell phones in their laps to avoid detection, but of course this directs their eyes farther away from the road.

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I know. How can people be so stupid? But wise legislation has to take stupid people into account.

There is a particular temperament that wants to address every problem with a law or regulation. But there are some evils that law as an instrument is poorly designed to fight. For that reason, criminalizing them causes more problems than it solves. This appears to be one of them.

A trivial example, more irksome than evil, is people who talk loudly on their cell phones in confined public spaces like (oh, why does this come to mind?) the Long Island Rail Road. "There should be a law against that!" Well, no. And thankfully New York State has not gone in that direction, because there are ways of remedying the problem short of legislation. The LIRR simply announces frequently that it is inconsiderate to behave that way, and instructs people to keep their voices down or their calls short or move to a doorway for their conversations. Censorious looks from fellow passengers and an occasional "Do you mind?" also help contain the rudeness to manageable levels.

Private organizations can have a role, and we have a strong history of this. Think of everything from the Women's Temperance Society in the 19th century to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). The Driven to Distraction Task Force of Washington State has undertaken "to make phone-related distracted driving as socially and legally unacceptable in Washington State as drunk driving is today." This kind of organization attempts to accomplish with public education and social condemnation (shaming) what the law's fat fingers are by nature too clumsy to do.

Self-regulation by and among citizens means less need for government action, which means less need for coercion and its abuse, and a freer, more just life together.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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