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The Government is here to help you keep your eyes on the road

States’ distracted driving laws have largely been ineffective, leading the federal government to find new ways to force drivers to remain focused.

Photo by: James Clayton

Ronald Reagan famously decried an over-bearing government, saying that the “nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”  Well, the distracted driving laws enacted by states over the past few years have plainly failed to be as effective as intended, and the federal government is now here to help drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

A number of actions can divert a driver’s attention away from the roadway, including those as simple as eating, adjusting the radio, or even talking to a passenger.  State legislatures, however, have overwhelmingly focused their attention on curbing drivers’ usage of cellular phones to text, call, or otherwise use a mobile device while driving.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) emphasized the epidemic of distracted driving in a recent report (pdf), which disturbingly found that at any given daylight moment, 1.18 million drivers (9% of all drivers on the road) are using some type of mobile device.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning all drivers from texting while driving.

States have taken the first step in addressing the problem of distractions inside the vehicle through laws commonly referred to as “texting while driving” laws.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) database of distracted driving laws, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning all drivers from texting while driving.  But texting has not been the only focus of these laws.  In fact, thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have banned novice drivers (i.e., teenagers) from any type of cellular phone use, and ten states and the District of Columbia have completely banned all cellular phone use for all drivers.

An example of anti-texting legislation can be found in North Carolina.  Signed into law in 2009 by then-Governor Bev Perdue, the law makes it unlawful to manually enter text into a phone to communicate, or to read an email or text message received by the cellular phone.  The law does provide exceptions, shared by many other states’ laws, allowing a driver to use a cellular phone when the vehicle is parked and allowing a driver to use a built-in GPS system or hands-free technology.

A lack of focus while in control of a vehicle is a problem that extends beyond the roadway as well.  Just last month, the National Transportation Safety Board found that a 2011 helicopter crash was directly attributable to the pilot’s text messaging throughout his shift.  Another example can be found in a 2008 train accident in California, the worst of the last twenty years, which occurred because the train driver was texting instead of paying attention to the stop signals on the railway.  These non-automobile examples are few and far between, for the moment; however, the thousands of deaths and hundreds-of-thousands of injuries attributed to distracted driving each year on the roadway is an immediate issue.

“The best way to end distracted driving is to educate all Americans about the danger it poses.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation believes the multitude of distracted driving-related accidents are due to a lack of driver education on the issue.  The department named April as National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and its website, Distraction.gov, highlights statistics and applicable state laws, proclaiming that the “best way to end distracted driving is to educate all Americans about the danger it poses.”  North Carolina’s Department of Transportation, for its part, contributed to the education initiative by creating public service announcements, calling on “zombie” drivers to hang up their phones and pay attention to the roadway.

Even when drivers are aware of the laws, the fact that they are primarily referred to as “anti-texting” laws can defeat the overall purpose of the law – the elimination, or at least minimization, of all distractions caused by cellular phone use.  Many drivers likely believe that as long as they are not texting, they will remain outside the scope of the law.  However, a California judge recently ruled (pdf) that California’s law banning the hands-on use of a cellular phone while driving includes more than just conversing by text or voice (in this case, using a smartphone map application).  Now that smartphones account for over half of all cellular phones in America, it is conceivable that distracted driving laws will transform from those like North Carolina’s, only restricting texting and email, to those like California’s, restricting all use of a cellular device by a driver.

Not only is a lack of education a barrier to safety on the roadways, but enforcement of distracted driving laws can also be incredibly difficult.  For example, in North Carolina, only 1,500 drivers were cited with a violation in 2010 and 2011, a number far short of the purported nine-percent of all drivers who are driving while distracted at any given moment.  According to the NCSL database, thirty-five states consider texting-while-driving a primary offense, which, in theory, would allow law enforcement to have an easier time cracking down on the dangerous habit.  The difficulty, however, lies in determining if a driver is actually violating the law.  Due to the prevalence of smartphones, a driver pulled over for a purported violation is just as likely to be surfing the internet or playing Angry Birds.  These activities could undoubtedly distract a driver as much as, or possibly even more than, a phone call or text, but the driver would not be violating the law unless a state has banned all use of cellular phones while driving.

The pervasiveness of driving-while-texting demonstrates that drivers either do not believe they will be caught or believe the small fine accompanying a violation is merely a nuisance.  Nevertheless, losing a couple hundred dollars should be the least of a driver’s worries.  Each year there are over 3,000 deaths and over 400,000 injuries directly attributed to distracted driving, a number that has failed to decrease in spite of almost every state enacting some form of a distracted driving law.  Because of this troubling trend, the federal government is looking into other, more creative ways to keep drivers focused on the road.

Vehicles will prevent the driver from endangering himself, and others, unless the vehicle can verify the driver is following safety protocols.

Vehicle manufacturers have begun to integrate smartphone-like technology in vehicles, allowing a driver to send and receive messages, check the internet, and stream music from devices built-in to the vehicle’s dashboard or center console.   The auto industry, perhaps rightly so, believes these features serve a driver with a safer alternative to using hand-held devices.  Nevertheless, the addition of yet another device inside vehicles prompted NHTSA to issue nonbinding, voluntary guidelines this past April, which seek to limit the use of these devices.

NHTSA’s guidelines recommend disabling certain actions unless the vehicle is stopped and in park, including manually inputting text for messaging, internet browsing, video conferencing, and the display of content from social media.  Think of it like a DUI offender having to blow into a breathalyzer every time he wants to start his car – the vehicle will prevent the driver from endangering himself and others, unless the vehicle can verify the driver is following safety protocols.

The guidelines are considered a “first phase” in addressing the limitation of devices inside of vehicles, with the next logical step being the expansion of national regulations to cellular phones.  In fact, the guidelines even go so far as to recommend that cellular phone manufacturers keep the guidelines in mind as the phones of the future are designed and assembled.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency tasked with regulating the cellular phone industry, has weighed-in on the issue, as well, and recently showcased a number of technologies to combat distracted driving.  A combination of regulations from NHTSA and technologies promoted by the FCC could provide a consistent solution, applicable to all drivers, not found in the patchwork of state-by-state distracted driving laws.

Possibly recognizing an issue already exists, cellular phone manufacturers have begun implementing certain technologies, such as voice-controlled input, which would seemingly comply with the guidelines and distracted driving laws.  But a recent report (pdf) by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that talking at your phone still carries a significant risk of distraction.   Cellular carriers have also tried their hand at curtailing distracted driving by allowing customers to sign up for services that disable communicative features of smartphones while driving.  Still, these services are generally marketed towards parents wishing to track their teenagers’ driving habits.  Novice drivers account for the greater number of distracted driving-related accidents, but the epidemic does not discriminate based on age.

Driving a car is undoubtedly the wrong time to multitask.

Multitasking can be quite helpful, when done at the right time, and smartphones have made the attachment to mobile devices an increasingly integral part of many people’s lives.  The term “Crackberry” exists for a reason.  Yet, driving a car is undoubtedly the wrong time to multitask.  President Reagan’s cautionary words have been repeated many times over, but sometimes the government needs to take action to prevent the unnecessary loss of life.  The imposition of seatbelt requirements, for example, was once thought controversial.

A number of obstacles must certainly be overcome, namely what to do in the event of an emergency where a driver would actually be endangered by an inability to communicate while driving.  Time will tell if these new, seemingly extreme measures will be implemented.  For now, a driver reaching for that beeping phone would be wise to choose, instead, to stay focused on the roadway before that choice is made for him.

Adam Steele, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
About Adam Steele, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (17 Articles)
Adam Steele served as Editor-in-Chief for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2013-2014 school year. Prior to law school, he attended N.C. State University, where he earned a B.A. in Political Science in 2006. He taught US History at a local high school for a short time before working as a paralegal at Millberg Gordon Stewart PLLC for three years prior to law school. Adam interned in all three branches of the state government, including with the Transportation Section of the N.C. DOJ, the Research Division of the N.C. General Assembly, and with the Honorable Paul C. Ridgeway, Resident Superior Court Judge in Raleigh. Adam spent the summer of 2013 clerking with the Honorable Sanford L. Steelman, Jr., N.C. Court of Appeals and Millberg Gordon Stewart PLLC. Adam spent the majority of his 3L year interning with Red Hat, Inc., and as a research assistant to Dean J. Rich Leonard. He graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2014.
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