Critics trumpet studies that speaking on the phone is as dangerous as driving with .08 blood alcohol content, but the same studies say hands-free devices are just as dangerous, which means even having a conversation with a passenger in the car would be just as distracting as driving drunk! (The dirty little secret is that driving at .08 isn't all that dangerous - most people who do it never have an accident, and most DWI deaths involve drivers with much higher BACs.)
My personal view is that the blame for human beings being distracted generally lies not with whatever specific thing they're momentarily distracted by but the simple fact that humans, by nature, are distractable and those prone to be distracted - more often young people and inexperienced drivers - will find something to be distracted by because of a general lack of maturity and mental focus.
That said, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and if cities like Austin are going to impose texting bans, one thing that's never made sense to me is the bold hypocrisy of putting friggin' laptops in police cars which are far more distracting than any of the things just mentioned. According to Austin's KVUE-TV:
[Austin police] officers were involved in 741 crashes between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2010. Officers were found at-fault in nearly half of those crashes. Nearly 20 percent of the officer-involved crashes were caused by distracted driving. Officers were using their in-car computers in more than a third of the distracted driving crashes.So somewhere around 50 of the 741 crashes over a three-year span were caused by "distracted driving" by police, as was the case of this officer who had two distracted driving crashes at the same intersection in a matter of months, both times while fiddling with gadgetry in her car. Fifty over three years' time seems like a small number to me, but in the scheme of things so does the number of accidents caused by texting in the car. So what is the agency doing about the problem? Again from KVUE:
Lt. Cochran says Senior Police Officer Ryan Huling and others in APD’s Tech Unit are making on-screen display changes to make it easier for officers like Dunn to see their computer screens without taking their eyes off the road. Changes include bigger, bolder font and quick keys.A couple of things stand out to me from those statements. First, police are "discouraged" from typing while driving, but for the rest of us in Austin even using a Blackberry while waiting at a stoplight or while stuck in traffic is verboten - banned by law and subject to criminal penalties. So the gander receives finger wagging "discouragement" while the goose is cooked.
“To run a plate you had to push two buttons,” Lt. Cochran says. “Now you only have to push one button, which sounds a lot, doesn't sound like much of a change but it is a big change when you're trying to do that.”
Officers are discouraged from typing while driving. Other changes include an ergonomically correct, swing-out mount that keeps officers from having to lean over to use their computers.
Moreover, it's absurd to crow that having to push one button instead of two is some sort of "big change." In fact, it's a lie. Officers must push at least seven buttons, because they must enter the license plate number in order to run a plate. One more keystroke makes little difference - the biggest distraction is having the laptop in the vehicle in the first place and rigging it so police can use it while the vehicle is in motion. The solution isn't more rules or "bigger, bolder fonts" but a simple technological fix: The computer simply shouldn't operate unless the gearshift is in the "park" position if "distracted driving" is such a great concern.
Even more ironic, reports KVUE, "Despite all of the technological and ergonomic changes, they say many officers seem most excited about a new addition to their patrol cars: cup holders." But there's little doubt eating and drinking while driving is at least as distracting as their in-car gadgetry, so they're introducing new distractions while making an insignificant change to reduce in-car distractions already identified. Instead of installing cup holders, why not simply make a rule disallowing officers from eating and drinking while the car is in motion? Wouldn't that also reduce distractions?
Again, I think too much is being made of the risks from "distracted driving" and I'm not of the view that a massive new wave of criminal laws is needed. But if police are going to enforce municipal texting bans or give tickets for talking on a cell phone in a school zone, it's disingenuous for them to have a laptop installed in their car that they're freely allowed to operate while the vehicle is in motion. It's not the danger that bothers me so much, it's the hypocrisy.