When pushing the bill, proponents tend to conflate distracted driving with cell phone use, perhaps because the numbers are more impressive. Every year there 3,300 fatalities nationwide linked to distracted driving. In Texas, one in five crashes -- or maybe it's one in four -- involve driver distraction. Texting may well be the "king of distraction," as an insurance-industry lobbyist recently told the Texas legislature, but if so it's a monarch in a multipolar world. Data on whether and how a cell phone was being used in the lead-up to a car crash are shaky, since that generally requires a person to detail their phone use to a cop investigating the crash, but the best federal figures suggest that cell phone use of all kinds is involved in 12 percent of distracted driving crashes; daydreaming, meanwhile, accounted for 18 percent. And that's for all types of cell-phone use, not just texting but also reaching for the phone, dialing a number, and talking -- none of which are touched by the bill passed by the House.
Of course, the fact that no one knows exactly how big a piece of the distracted-driving pie texting accounts for isn't necessarily defensible grounds for opposing it. But conflating numbers in a way that overstates the potential impact of a policy on public safety is, at the least, frustrating. There's also no clear data on the effectiveness of texting bans. A 2014 study concluded that primary texting bans similar to the one being considered in Texas were associated with a 3-percent reduction in traffic fatalities. But another study concluded that whatever impact texting bans had on accidents dissipated after a couple of months, once the news coverage had died down. Still another study, put out by an insurance industry group, found that texting bans have sometimes increased crashes, possibly because drivers were more prone to put their phones on their laps instead of at eye level in order to avoid detection by police.It's telling that "daydreaming" is a 50 percent greater "distraction" to drivers than phone use, including texting and talking combined. If we want to keep everybody safe, surely we need to ban that next? Then, of course, we'll need Thought Police to enforce the Daydreaming Ban, and if anybody tells you it's a bad idea, just raise your voice and insist texting while driving is just as dangerous as driving drunk, and daydreaming is half again as dangerous as that! Think of the children!
A bigger issue is the difficulty of enforcement. Under the bill, texting and surfing the web on a cell phone is banned, but dialing a phone number or using a phone to navigate via services like Google Maps is allowed. How can cops know whether someone is texting or looking at Google Maps? They can't: The bill naturally prohibits cops from searching phones during a traffic stop. And are misdemeanor prosecutors really going to subpoena cell phone records to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a driver was texting when he was pulled over? Doubtful.
In that case, the measure would stand as little more than pretext for police to pull over drivers they didn't otherwise suspect of a crime. State Representative Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat, proposed an amendment that would prevent texting from being used as probable cause for a traffic stop, but it failed, along with his proposal to require larger police departments to annually report texting-while-driving citations, including a racial breakdown.
If his concerns seem overblown, remember Dallas' now-dead law requiring bike helmets. It, like the texting ban, was touted as a commonsense way to promote public safety, but it led to wildly disparate enforcement: almost all of the citations happened in poor, minority neighborhoods.
Nicholson concluded, IMO rightly, that the only potentially valid, fact based argument for the texting ban is to "send a message," and regular readers know Grits thinks criminal laws are a terrible way to do that. After all, who besides lawyers read them? Want to send a message? Then taxpayers' money would be better spent on billboards and TV ads telling people to get off the phone than on cops and courts to "educate" them via Class C tickets.
Grits would also add an important coda to Nicholson's points which this blog raised in December, and which is perhaps even more poignant today in the wake of a bridge collapsing yesterday on I-35:
few politicians want to talk about the much more significant cause of fatal accidents in Texas: Underinvestment in transportation infrastructure, particularly in the oil patch where the Eagle Ford shale region has seen a 40 percent increase in fatal crashes, but really throughout the state. Those parsimonious budget decisions at the Legislature are contributing more to the traffic fatality total than drivers talking on cell phones. But it's not as much fun to hold a press conference demagoguing against oneself. So it's better from a pol's perspective to find some group to blame and criminalize, like cell-phone users, even if in the scheme of things that's not the most common cause of driving fatalities, by a long shot, and bans may even make the problem worse.