Friday, August 28, 2009

Texting ban ignores road dangers that are more common, just as risky

Utterly predictably, the Austin City Council yesterday unanimously approved moving forward with the creation of a ban on texting while driving, but there were some interesting tidbits in this morning's news coverage. According to the Austin Statesman:

Council Member Bill Spelman asked whether the ban would apply to police officers, who have computers in their patrol cars.

Police Chief Art Acevedo said that the ban would most likely exempt officers but that he encourages officers to use the computers only while stopped at red lights.

Hmmmm ... so why not just "encourage" the public to only use texting at red lights, if the police chief thinks that's safe for officers? What's good for the goose is good for the gander. And what's wrong with looking at your Blackberry at a red light, anyway? Why not just enact the ban while the car is in motion?

Personally I see no more concern with the level of distraction caused by checking email at a red light than with people who drive while adjusting the radio station, typing an address into their GPS, eating breakfast behind the wheel, putting on makeup, disciplining children in the backseat, or any number of other distracting things people do in their car. Before this law becomes final, the City Council should seek to learn the relative risk of these other common behaviors for comparison or it makes little sense to just pick out texting for a ban.

Indeed, Chief Acevedo apparently touted quite a few unlikely positions at yesterday's meeting, including statistics he apparently pulled out of thin air. News8 Austin reports:

"The bottom line is we know that 70 percent of Americans when a law is passed, they voluntarily comply," Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said. "That means that 70 percent of people who text now will stop a practice that we know is unsafe for them and those around us."

Acevedo also said so far this year, more than 30,000 accidents have been recorded in Austin and of those, 30 percent can be attributed to people not paying attention.

That's some stinky bullshit he's spreading around the city council's garden.

First, saying 30% of accidents stem from "people not paying attention" give us no information at all on how many were caused by texting on cell phones. They're passing a law without any data to even know the extent of the problem. Indeed, apparently police have no hard evidence it's a problem at all - it just happens to be the flavor of the month.

Also, I'd love to know where this stat comes from that 70% of people comply when a law is passed ... does that mean that predictably 30% of the public won't comply, and if not how effective or useful is it to pass a law? Should we really pass laws expecting 30% of the public to not comply? All that does is set up large portions of the public for ticketing and bleed them for more revenue.

Which leads to a concern raised by the ACLU's Debbie Russell that the city isn't planning to spend any public education money to support the ordinance. Apparently people will find out about it when cops start giving tickets for previously legal activity.

I view this approach as a failure of leadership and imagination - a mostly symbolic, revenue generating scheme that won't measurably improve public safety. Indeed, if the City Council really wanted to reduce accidents, they should be investing more to make roads safer. A commenter pointed out a recent study that found:

More than half of U.S. highway fatalities are related to deficient roadway conditions - a substantially more lethal factor than drunk driving, speeding or non-use of safety belts - according to a landmark study released [July 1]. Ten roadway-related crashes occur every minute (5.3 million a year) and also contribute to 38 percent of non-fatal injuries, the report found.

One of the authors of that study declared,

"Although behavioral factors are involved in most crashes, avoiding those crashes through driver improvement requires reaching millions of individuals and getting them to sustain best safety practices ...It is far more practical to make the roadway environment more forgiving and protective."

But of course, improving roads costs money while the texting ban is a moneymaker, so it's easy to see which one the City has incentive to prioritize.


doran said...

There is an invidious aspect to texting which this ban inadvertantly addresses: That is, the destructive force that texting is having on the ability of (mostly) younger people to spell correctly. If texting is allowed to continue uncontrolled and unabated, huge numbers of people will grow up not knowing, or even caring, about how to spell simple words like "thank you," "you're," "you're welcome," "drinks," "meet," "Emo's" "margaritas," "hot babe," "hot stud," "going" and other commonly used words upon which our civil discourse and economic well-being depend.

I think the Austin City Council is on the right track here: Mis-spelling of words so vital to our society's well being should in fact be criminalized and punished. Teh futr of our cntry dpnds onit. Bledng hrt librls shld jus shtthefkup.

Anonymous said...

This is going to sound cold, but passing laws against everything that might endanger a persons life instead of teaching common sense does nothing to save lives. Despite all the laws we pass to regulate things like texting or using a hand held cell phone while driving, people are still going to do it. People have died from being hit by cars in which the driver was using their laptop, changing the radio station, applying their make up or shaving in their car and just reaching for their coffee. So what next? We outlaw those activities while driving in response to the accidents they caused?

For a state that prides itself on the freedom of it's citizens, Texas sure does seem to take more pride in all the laws it passes to restrict those freedoms as well as the numbers of individuals it puts in prison every year. Somehow I just can't convince myself that the people of Texas are so inherently evil to justify those numbers. Could it have something to do with criminalizing everything under the sun from children's squabbles in grade school to dress codes in public places.

I guess I wouldn't be surprised if in addition to a ticket or arrest for texting in a school zone, the officer checked the spelling and issued an additional fine for every work misspelled.

Anonymous said...

I'll say it again: seatbelts.

Maybe some of you are too young to remember LBSB (life before seatbelts), but I promise you the threat of an expensive ticket made a difference in Texas.

The studies show that cell phone use, including texting, is high on the list of contributing factors in accidents. The facts are clear, and frankly, I think a lot of this is simply generational.

"You can pry my Blackberry from my cold dead fingers."


Really? said...

You aren't trying to suggest that texting while driving doesn't cause accidents? Any idiot can drive behind a person texting and see the results.

I can't recall ever driving behind a law enforcement vehicle and seeing a patrol car drifting across it's lane because an officer was running a plate on his computer.

This post was just plain silly.

jimbino said...

It doesn't matter some kids never learn to spell. If they just learn to say things like, "I had occasion to observe the individual exiting the vehicle," they can become cops.

It is impossible to believe any statistics advanced by law-enforcement types. Take "alcohol-related accident" for example. If you investigate that statistic, you will find out that it includes accidents in which a drunk sleeping in his car or even a tipsy pedestrian is hit by a sober driver.

Of course, none of this really matters, since all accidents have been found to be "water-related" and there is as yet no ban on drinking water, even while driving.

The law, especially in Texas, is an ass.

Get Off Our Streets Now said...

It only takes a marginal level of intelligence to understand that trying to focus on a tiny device and read and/or type on tiny little keys takes your attention off of the most dangerous activity most of us engage in during a given day. You've shown here that you don't possess the intelligence needed to be behind the wheel of a car.

I have personally known a handful of people who have had their lives turned completely upside down from being hit in their car by someone who was texting instead of paying attention to their driving.

Your views here are those of someone who should NOT be given the privilege of a Texas Driver's License. For that matter, my hometown would be much safer if you would pack your belongings and your ridiculous views and leave Austin permanently.

Anonymous said...

Just a few weeks ago, my son and a friend passed a Sheriff's deputy who was driving under the speed limit on a low traffic roadway. As they passed, they observed the deputy was texting on a cell phone. My son made a note of the identification of the vehicle in hopes that I would notify his superiors. To their further disbelief, a light turned yellow and they stopped while the Sheriff's vehicle sailed through the light - fully red, texting all the way.

Fortunately, no accident - but what a great lesson for my son and his friend! I doubt either of them will ever text while driving after that observation.

Be it a phone or a computer screen, there are obviously topics that require more concentration and create more distraction than merely changing the radio station - even from the "best" of us. Right?

doran said...

Anon 10:11. You missed the point.

Of course driving while texting can be dangerous. But so can be driving while reading, driving while shaving, driving while looking in one's purse for lunch money for one's school kids, driving while putting on make-up, driving while dialing a cell phone and talking on it, driving while exhausted, etc etc.

The point is, all these things are dangerous. So why deal only with driving while texting? Particularly since the rationale for the ordinance seems to be based on urban myths, anecdotes, and really, really poor data?

Well, primarily because those who do most of the texting, based upon my own anecdotal evidence and some urban myths, are young, not politically active, and have no one to represent them in the dialogue leading up to enactment of the ordinance.

Just a question to you: Do you think that all those other dangerous, stupid things that drivers do while driving should be criminalized? Or would it be better, as Grits suggests, to rent billboards all over town with warnings similar to those you see regarding DWI, unwanted pregnancy, and the really, really coolest beer to drink? If advertising works for these folks why wouldn't it work to discourage and reduce texting while driving? I think it would, but of course, that sort of approach will not generate income for the City of Austin nor add to the unreasonable control that police already have over the rest of us.

Merci said...

Austin cops drive around looking at the computers mounted in the front of those police cruisers.

Conehead said...

For the last few weeks a couple of motorcycle cops have been running a speed trap out on the street near the place where I work. Traffic does tend to run above the posted limit in the area, but only because the posted limit is unreasonably slow given the size and condition of the road.

Something about a speed trap just strikes me as cowardly and unfair so I decided a protest was in order. I wrote "SPEED TRAP!" on a large placard and spent my lunch break standing on the sidewalk about a block up from the motorcycle cops waving at the motorists and warning them to slow down.

I'd estimate that at least 25% of the drivers were talking on the phone while they passed me. Most drivers, even those on the phone, made eye contact and either waved or smiled. A couple of the talkers didn't seem to notice me at all and they got pulled over.

So I guess the moral of the story is that most people are able to use the phone and drive at the same time but there is a subset that can't and within that subset there is a smaller subset that also exceeds the speed limit while distracted.

I'll need to recruit an accomplice for next time though because the cops just moved to the other side of the street and started popping people driving from the opposite direction.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sugarbear, I'm old enough to remember life before seat belts, and what I remember is that a) it took a long time to develop consensus even after the law passed, b) it was unenforceable until shoulder straps were required, which made it easier to spot whether a seat belt is on than would be someone texting at a stoplight in their lap, c) right up until this day the seat belt ban was supplemented with massive public ed campaigns and TV advertising, and d) there was no countervailing motive for NOT wearing seat belts the way there is for those who spend long commutes sitting in traffic to and from work, for example. It's just an apples and oranges comparison.

"Really?" Seems to have missed my points completely, but I never said texting isn't a risk. I just don't see it as any greater risk than, for example, punching an address into a GPS or a host of other distracting things people do in the car, so why ban one and not the others?

Conehead, let us know the results of your study - how many cell phone users aren't paying enough attention to avoid a ticket. Also be sure to document how many non-cell phone users avoid your waning. :)

Anonymous said...

grits...u gots a weak argument.

Anonymous said...

It really is a shame that humans have become so stupid they cannot figure out that taking your eyes of the road while driving = BAD, waiting until you are parked = GOOD... and pity the government whether local, state, or federal have to get into the mix to ban such practices.

"For a state that prides itself on the freedom of it's citizens,..."

When did this state EVER pride itself as being a bastion of the freedom of the population? help me here, seriously. I have lived here for 40 years, and never have I thought that Texas, of all places, cares one ioda about the Constitution of the United States.

Anonymous said...

Grits: If you didn't have a shoulder belt when the law changed (which, if memory serves was 'round '85) you must have been driving some kind of serious beater. A Ford Maverick perhaps?



W Davis said...

I believe the credible research indicates the danger to self and others of talking, much less texting, on a cell phone while driving. However, I can't see much practicality in criminalizing such behavior for reasons others have stated.

One point that is usually missed in such discussions is that I can hang up in an instant, but I can't sober up very quickly. Most cell users aren't on the phone for the entire durations of a trip. We also dismiss that the research shows that the problems are significantly worse when driving alone.

My bottom line, however, is that I wish all cell phone use were banned while driving.

We can determine from phone records that a cell phone was in use at a given time. How about this -- if you are in an accident and are shown to have been driving alone with a cell phone in operation then you will be treated in all criminal and civil considerations as if you were dead drunk.

Anonymous said...

Merci said...
"Austin cops drive around looking at the computers mounted in the front of those police cruisers."

And a HPD cop just yesterday blew a red light while doing the same and got hammered by cross traffic. Punching data into a computer or telephone isn't the same as punching up a radio station button on the FM and extensive, involved conversations on phones mean your mind isn't in the right place - ever notice how often you know the moron in front of you doing 50 in the Bimmer or Suburban in a 65 zone in yacking?

These folks are trying to kill me and thee - it's time it is addressed.

Please excusr the typos. It's hard to see them all while trying also to keep up with traffic on the tollway here!

PirateFriedman said...

More than half of U.S. highway fatalities are related to deficient roadway conditions - a substantially more lethal factor than drunk driving, speeding or non-use of safety belts - according to a landmark study released [July 1]. Ten roadway-related crashes occur every minute (5.3 million a year) and also contribute to 38 percent of non-fatal injuries, the report found.

The downside to making roads safer is that people will just drive faster and more dangerously.

Anonymous said...

Conehead, whenever you need help with warning drivers of speed traps in Austin, please let me know by emailing me at I will be glad to join you in this effort.