Three seconds to check a text… three seconds to cross the center line

While the problem of texting and driving continues to plague our country, law enforcement officials struggle to keep up with the ever-changing technology and enforce texting and driving laws.

Photo by Michael Babcock

Forty-one states have outlawed texting and driving.  The question that comes next is how will this be enforced?  Will the police develop a new type of laser that can detect sent text messages?  Will new vehicles create a cellular dead zone when an individual is sitting in the driver’s seat?  Will cellular companies automatically restrict cell service when connected to vehicles?  These ideas seem crazy; however, many questions surrounding texting and driving enforcement remain unanswered.

Over 18 percent of all fatal crashes are caused by driver distraction.  One of the biggest driver distractions is our personal communication device— the cell phone.  Although the United States may still be looking for an answer, British Columbia may have found a solution.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have turned to new cameras that can spot drivers texting from ¾ of a mile away.  The RCMP use these cameras at stoplights and stop signs — where it is still illegal to text while behind the wheel— to spot drivers who may be attempting to send a quick text.  The fine that attaches to texting and driving acts as a heavy incentive as well.  For a first offense the fine is $418 USD and for every following offense, the price rises to $684 USD.  This, compared to North Carolina, which carries a penalty of only $100 and the costs of court.

Court systems in other countries have adapted to the ever-changing world of technology as it relates to drivers and road safety.  For example in England, a new crime called “death by dangerous driving”—similar to drinking and driving— was created for texting and driving.  The crime occurs when an individual kills another individual while texting and driving and it carries a recommended sentence of four to seven years in prison.  The United States, however, has yet to create strict laws against the dangerous activity.

Instead of having to blow into a machine, drivers will be asked to turn over their cell phones.

The Florida Legislature and Tennessee Legislature  introduced a bill this past January that aims to double the penalty for texting and driving.  In New York, a man is pushing a campaign to stop texting and driving once and for all.  Ben Lieberman leads a campaign to have law enforcement officers check phone records following a crash.  Where some individuals have complained that this is a violation of privacy rights, the idea—referred to as a “textalyzer” — is a machine that can plug into a cell phone and tell officers when texts were sent and received.  Instead of having to blow into a machine, drivers will be asked to turn over their cell phones.  The phones will then be scanned for recent texts, snapchats, or other data sent from the phone.  Lieberman began this campaign in 2014 after his son was killed while riding as a passenger in a car of a texting driver.  While texting, the driver veered across the yellow line and struck another car head on.  Ben’s son, Evan had his seatbelt on in the back seat but died from his injuries in the following weeks.

Ben’s campaign does not stand alone in the fight against texting and driving.  Other groups, founded by concerned citizens with similar stories have the same goal in mind: stop texting and driving.  The largest effected age group is young drivers.  Young drivers are more at risk due to the increased urge to have constant communication and also due to driving inexperience.  There is an increasing trend for the younger generations to spend more time on their phones.  With the trend headed toward almost constant use, it is easy to see why teens cannot resist texting and driving.

With the addition of the “textalyzer” to law enforcement’s tool belt, police officers will be better equipped to fight the ever growing fight against texting and driving.  The best tool to combat this problem is self-control.  Drivers must control the urge to answer a text.  Individuals who are aware that the person to whom they are sending a text is driving, must also use their self-control and wait for that person to arrive at their destination.  Some cellphone companies have joined the fight against texting and driving by creating an auto-reply app that sends a personal text reply when the cell phone’s blue tooth connects to the vehicle.  This puts individuals on notice that a person is driving and that text messages should not be sent for the duration of the drive.

Although handing out tickets is one way to enforce the rule against texting and driving, the ticket, unfortunately in most cases, comes too late.

Texting and driving is a difficult crime for law enforcement to prove.  Since it is not illegal to play music, check email, or take pictures while driving, law enforcement must either have cell phone records or an admission of guilt by the driver in order to charge for a specific texting infraction.  To obtain cell phone records, an officer would need a court subpoena.  The officer would only need to establish the time the infraction occurred compared to the cell phone record received from the provider.  If the officer spotted a distracted driver (and believed that it was a problem), the officer has the ability to pull the driver over and issue a ticket for reckless driving.  Reckless driving is a charge that can be issued when an officer believes that an individual is driving in careless or wanton disregard for the rights of others.  An argument for a reckless driving charge can easily be made because texting and driving causes over 300,000 injuries a year.

Although handing out tickets is one way to enforce the rule against texting and driving, the ticket, unfortunately in most cases, comes too late.  It is far more likely that an individual will be in an accident before they are stopped for texting.  It only takes a half a second to move your foot to the brake pedal but it takes much longer than that for a distracted driver to realize the brakes are needed.  The “it will only take a second” mentality is correct.  Where it may only take a second to send a text, it will also only take a second to drift out of the lane, or to fail to notice the car in front slamming on brakes.  In an activity where mere seconds matter, the saying falls by the wayside when the benefit is compared to the risk.

Only a few months ago, a 17-year-old ran a red light and struck another vehicle.  The crash killed a father and his young daughter.  Seconds before the crash, the young driver had posted to Facebook.  Her passengers yelled “Red Light!” but the few seconds required to stop the car had passed, and they barreled through the light.  The teen is now being charged with criminal vehicular homicide.

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey found that a percentage of drivers between 18-34 claimed that texting has little to no impact on their driving ability. 

One major problem is that a number of the individuals who text and drive refuse to admit that it impairs their ability to drive.  A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey found that a percentage of drivers between 18-34 claimed that texting has little to no impact on their driving ability.  Similar to the argument seen against seat belts, their reasoning does not follow the statistic.  Where their texting and driving experience has not ended terribly, it is only a matter of time before an unlucky situation turns them into a statistic.

With all of the distractions that may take an individual’s attention off of the road, self-driving cars seem like the only plausible fix to the problem.  Where tech companies are attempting to curb the problem with new window displays, these services are not widely used.  The problem with distractions while driving has been around for hundreds of years.  The difference is that in the 1800’s, it was the horse’s distraction to be worried about.  Today, there is no way to remove every distraction a driver may have on the road without drastic measures.

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About Cyrus Corbett V, Associate Editor Emeritus (16 Articles)
Cyrus Corbett V is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. He is from Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and received his Bachelors in Arts in Government from Wofford College in 2014. Since July after his first year of law school, Cyrus has interned at the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association in downtown Raleigh focusing on the Retail Merchants Handbook. His interest is in jurisprudence of the law and negotiation/ mediation.
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