So You’ve Stopped Texting While Driving, Right?

Because it's the law, you know.

We’ve all done it. You’re cruising along in your car and paying more attention to something other than the road in front of you. Maybe it’s the radio, or an iPod, or that Big Mac you’re trying to scarf down without spilling ketchup on your lap. Last Thursday, Pennsylvania tried to discourage one such distraction with a new law that bans texting while driving. It’s a great idea in theory, but with one pesky problem—there’s little reason to think it will change anyone’s bad habits.

As someone who lives in Center City and doesn’t have a garage or lot for my car, I try to drive as little as possible, mostly to avoid the stress-inducing parking-spot safari when I come home. Even though I might only get behind the wheel once or twice a week, lately I’ve been struck by how many times I’ve seen someone on the road either texting or talking without a hands-free device. Gone are the days when I’ll notice a car swerving up ahead and wonder if the driver is drunk; now, I assume he’s on the phone, and more often than not, that’s the case. Anecdotally, it’s usually someone who looks like a teenager or of college age, but not always. I’ve seen moms checking their Androids and burly construction workers chatting away with phones to their ear like they’re in an office, rather than a truck moving 65 miles per hour. The other day I noticed a car behind me was drifting side to side and moving at odd rates of speed—slowing down, speeding up. The driver wasn’t on crack. She was texting constantly, both while driving and at stop lights.

In a sense, you could say she was on a drug—the electronic kind so many of us are addicted to these days. We don’t need studies to show us that tweeting or texting while driving is far more dangerous than scanning the radio for a good song, or even dialing a phone number before your Bluetooth kicks in. A recent Inquirer report on the new ban in Pennsylvania pointed to a federal estimate that 18 percent of the fatal wrecks in 2009 were the result of cell phone use. That’s considered a conservative number. More troubling, a study of four states that passed texting bans showed that accidents went up across the board; three of the four showed a significant increase. The thought is that drivers are so determined to text on the road that they’ll simply lower the phone to keep it out of sight from the police. That means your head is down and anything in your peripheral vision—like, say, the highway and other cars—is greatly reduced.

Law-enforcement officials, including Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, are on record saying this ban is, at best, difficult to enforce. I’d take that a step further: It’s nearly impossible. If you’re pulled over for texting, there’s no way to prove you weren’t scrolling through your address book for a phone number. The cynic in me says the only real winner here is the city. The New York Times recently chronicled how tickets have become a lucrative revenue generator for the Big Apple in these austere times. Here, in the three years since Philadelphia’s handheld talking ban took effect, 31,000 tickets were handed out—at $75 each, that’s a whopping $2,325,000 in fines. If you’re pulled over for texting, that’s $50. Good luck challenging that ticket when it’s your word against the cop’s, assuming you can take time off from work to attend a hearing.

This no-text ban is another example of elected officials pushing through a headline-grabbing piece of legislation that sounds effective, but is hollow like a Halloween pumpkin. Its passage screams “We’re working to make your streets safer,” when in reality it’s profit, not safety, that this law guarantees. The only way to really curb cell phone calls and texts while driving is to push for technological, rather than behavioral, change, such as phones that won’t work while in motion, as recommended by the National Transportation and Safety Board. Until then, people will keep texting, and all those $50 tickets won’t make our roads any less dangerous.