Sunday, March 05, 2017

Why Grits still opposes a Texas texting ban

It's March of an odd-numbered year, so it must be time for a new round of demagoguery and overstatement about texting while driving and a renewed push to criminalize it.

First, a caveat: Grits acknowledges that texting while driving is unsafe and discourages the practice. But not every unsafe activity warrants a criminal law and, in this case, the arguments militate against it.

That's for a number of reasons. For starters, reckless driving is already a crime. If someone is texting and it results in bad driving, wouldn't that qualify? Why not enforce that law instead of creating a new one?

Moreover, what if a texting ban actually increased the number of distracted-driving accidents? An oft-ignored study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that states which enacted texting bans saw crashes increase. If they did acknowledge that study, texting-ban proponents would have to admit these uncomfortable facts:
It's perplexing for both police and lawmakers throughout the U.S.: They want to do something about the danger of texting while driving, a major road hazard, but banning the practice seems to make it even more dangerous. 
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that 3 of every 4 states that have enacted a ban on texting while driving have seen crashes actually go up rather than down. 
It's hard to pin down exactly why this is the case, but experts believe it is a result of people trying to avoid getting caught in states with stiff penalties. Folks trying to keep their phones out of view will often hold the phone much lower, below the wheel perhaps, in order to keep it out of view. That means the driver's eyes are looking down and away from the road.
The studies you see supporting a texting ban test whether drivers are better or worse at their appointed tasks while texting. But we can grant that texting is not ideal and still understand that the same distraction can be caused by looking at the map on their navigation system or digging around for the last french fry in a fast food bag. And we can also recognize that it'd be an even worse distraction if they were holding the phone out of view to avoid detection. What you don't want to do is make things worse.

That's the problem: There's a very real chance that do-gooders seeking a texting ban will cause more harm than they prevent. And their good intentions won't be a comfort to victims if death totals rise, as they did in 3 of 4 states where texting bans were enacted.

Anyway, many types of distractions cause people to take their eyes off the road, and Grits is unconvinced this problem is worse than people eating fast food while driving, putting on their makeup, or disciplining kids in the back seat.

There's also the fact that phones are used for a lot more than texting, including legitimate purposes like playing music or performing navigation functions. So the same activity - looking at your phone - could indicate legal or illegal activity. How can the law be enforced fairly?

Finally, Grits believes that, precisely because of this ambiguity, texting bans will be used by law enforcement for pretext stops - as an excuse to question people and look inside their car for other purposes, perhaps requesting consent to search or interrogating the driver about their activities.

San Antonio logged 12,000 tickets for texting while driving in the first year of their ban (at $200 each, so raising $2.4 million in Class C misdemeanor fines). This is happening at a time when the number of traffic tickets overall statewide has declined, so texting bans give local police an excuse to ramp up traffic stops at a time when the trend is in the other direction.

That's why Grits doesn't favor the texting ban legislation up in the Texas House Transportation Committee this week and hope it does not pass. It strikes me as an example where people's anger and innate judginess has overwhelmed their capacity for reason.

No, I don't approve of texting while driving. But I'm even less a fan of criminalizing common human behaviors so the government can make money and insert themselves into people's private affairs. And that goes double when doing so might worsen the harm it purports to prevent. In general, I want law enforcement to have fewer reasons  to get into average people's business, not more.


Gadfly said...

I don't think texting while driving would de facto qualify as reckless driving. Besides, it's not just texting; study after study after study has shown the use of cell phones while driving in general is dangerous. And, as a newspaper editor, I've seen enough cellphone-related accidents to have anecdotal backing. We need to ban the whole damned practice, and the way to do that is under separate law.

Sorry, but I think you're quite wrong on this one.

Gadfly said...

I want to also counter-analogize. Let's say Texas legalizes pot some day. Rather than have a driving while stoned statute, why not just file that under "reckless driving"? One could even argue that we never should have criminalized failure to buckle up children, etc.

The bigger issue is that we've let this get to the point where you, along with most people, consider it "normal behavior."

Arguably, to get back to the pot issue, or drinking while driving right now, it's an addiction.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Gadfly, texting while driving WOULD qualify as reckless if it caused someone to drive recklessly. If it does not, what is the public interest in outlawing it? (Same goes for putting on makeup, eating in the car, etc..)

Also, texting IS "normal behavior." Get out from behind the computer terminal and visit the world around you if you don't believe me, or maybe ask your kids. Ten years from now when driverless cars are in full swing, this will seem anachronistic. Compared to when it was first suggested, to me it already does.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, Gadfly, if the IIHS study is right and bans increase crashes, do you still support the idea? And do you have any reason to believe IIHS made up the data, has an interest to mislead, etc.? I granted that texting while driving is more dangerous than not. Why do you ignore evidence that banning it is more dangerous still?

Anonymous said...

Back in the 1960's the American Automobile Association did a study that showed just HAVING THE RADIO ON was enough of a distraction to increase the chance of a traffic accident. I have seen beggars holding cardboard signs causing accidents by distracting drivers in more than a few states so let's look at the big "I wanna feel so good about myself" picture. What about soccer mom in her SUV who is trying to eat a triple cheeseburger, put on make up, discipline her howling chimps in the back seat and use the phone at the same time? Does she get credit for a four part misdemeanor?

No matter how this one turns out let's encourage tribal elders gathered around the council fire in Austin to limit distracted driving to a fine that starts at, say, one hundred dollars and goes up to three hundred or so. Reckless driving needs to be a HEFTY FINE, a la Singapore, unless there is death, injury and/or wrecked vehicles in which case the court can run amuck and feel good about levying pseudo Christian retribution.

Let's start moving away from jail time for penny ante stuff and start taking money instead. If a person is indigent there is always the community service angle---litter is everywhere. The arroyo dwellers in my area even welcome jail time during uncomfortable temperatures.

More and more people are figuring out that driving at night or in bad weather increases the chances of an accident by more than several fold so the shrewd drivers stay home at these times. Hmm, if enough people wise up like this, whither the malls and overall financial situation of the state?

Lee said...

If there is a ban on texting while driving, would that include using a laptop while driving like the cops do? Pot Kettle Black

Unknown said...

Interesting, I had not realized there were studies that bans on texting increase traffic accidents. If that's true, then it seems a no brainer not to criminalize it, although it goes against what I'd think so still a bit skeptical.

And as long as I'm commenting, and pre-apology for the quibble, but I think you meant militate instead of mitigate.

Anonymous said...

Another victimless crime, just like DWI.

Anonymous said...

I have friends in Ohio where it is illegal to text while driving and police use this as a pretext for traffic stops.

Cops cannot prove anything unless they forcefully take a driver's phone and even then they still cannot prove anything if the phone is password protected.

A completely useless law that only proves beneficial if an accident has occurred AND the driver is suspected of texting and causing the accident, and even then a warrant is required to access the data.

A feel-good law that has more unintended consequences and solves nothing.

Anonymous said...

Time to push the idea of driverless cars. We can lay off half the police, at least, and do the same for emptying jails in Texas that are a criminally wasteful jobs program in their own right.

Mass transportation needs to be expedited. The savings would be staggering---half the lawyers would leave with the autos that would be replaced. No more speeding tickets, DUIs, think of the potential.

xenonman said...

One can tell that this bizarre piece was written by lawyers!

Maybe one of this writer's relatives will be killed in an accident caused by some dumb teenage chick who was "multi-tasking" in juggling her rendezvous with the various male f*ck buddies of hers by texting while driving to visit her collection of "friends with benefits".

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, xenoman, no lawyers came near this post. And if MORE people die in states where a law would pass, why would you think that's better?

And Liberaltarian, good catch on mitigate. Just a brain fart; fixed it.

A Waco Friend said...

Most people do not like to see or hear data-based analysis that contradicts their pet peeve project! And legislators are among those that foolishly think they are wiser than the data.

Anonymous said...

Why not an enhancement for accidents caused by distracted driving? Every accident ends up in a ticket anymore, including the one car "unsafe speed" citations. If it can be proved that the driver was distracted...cell phone, dinner, shaving, putting on makeup...or whatever - make it an enhancement which bumps up fine or penalty class.

Anonymous said...

@11:08 What they are really looking for is another reason to pull people over and look for other issues like an outstanding warrant, drugs, DWI, etc...So an enhancement after the fact would not give them that extra pretext stop. Your idea would be a nice deterrent if safety were the goal, but sadly as Grits points out, safety is being disregarded by the sponsors of this bill.

Anonymous said...


Interesting article on the subject.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That is interesting, 5:59. Even though the authors believe that, "Strong laws with publicized strong enforcement are a proven countermeasure for changing driver behavior," when they looked at all the studies, they found no evidence that that's happening in this instance: "despite the proliferation of laws limiting drivers’ cellphone use, it is unclear whether they are having the desired effects on safety." But if there's no demonstrable effect on safety, what's the point?

DLW said...

5:12 nailed this. You will see a boatload of "reasonable suspicion" stops based upon an officer's claim that the driver was looking down as if he might be looking at a cell phone. Since many Texas Appellate Courts are letting Law Enforcement get by with traffic stops where no actual traffic violation occurred lots of Citizens will get pulled over on fishing expeditions.

Anonymous said...

Ban females from driving. Problem solved!

Anonymous said...

How about just making all cell phones have an active GPS and disabling talk/text when moving?

Anonymous said...

So you like them cars coming at your with the driver focusing on a text instead of you? Real smart.