Driving while talking on a cellphone? The consensus is that this activity is distracting—and therefore potentially dangerous—although reasonable people can (and do) debate the degree of danger it poses, especially while the call is in progress and the driver’s eyes are focused on the road ahead. Texting while driving is even worse.
There also is consensus that driving while sending and/or reading text messages—which requires the driver to look away from the road repeatedly—is more dangerous than simply talking; possibly a lot more. And the bad news is, texting while driving appears to be on the increase.
Anecdotally, we hear and see that millennials, and the future drivers coming of age behind them, are more comfortable texting than talking. Recent research appears to confirm the trend.
Texting: Harder to Catch, But Tickets Are On The Rise
According to traffic statistics collected by the University at Albany’s Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research, tickets issued for talking on a cellphone in four Capital Region counties (Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady) decreased by 28% in the five-year span from 2012 to 2016, from 6,844 to 4,954. In that same span, tickets issued by area law enforcement for texting while driving increased by 136%, from 1,222 to 2,878.
Statewide, the numbers are even more dramatic: The number of tickets given for talking in that time span fell by 47%, while tickets issued for texting rose by a whopping 205%.
The fact that there are still more tickets issued for talking than texting may actually hint at why these statistics probably understate the texting problem: Talking violators are easy to spot, with their phones pressed to their ears (hands-free talking is legal), but texters generally avoid holding their phones high enough for police to see, instead placing them down on the seat, or in their laps.
A first violation of talking or texting on a cellphone while driving can result in as much as a $200 fine and a $93 surcharge, as well as five points on a driver’s record. Three or more offenses within 18 months can result in fines of $450, 11 or more points on a driving record and a suspended license. First violations often result in a plea deal to reduce the fine and points.
A Particularly Dangerous Distraction
The website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, under Motor Vehicle Safety, identifies three basic types of distracted driving: visual (taking your eyes off the road); manual (taking your hands off the wheel); and cognitive (taking your mind off driving).
“Texting while driving is especially dangerous,” the web page emphasizes, “because it combines all three types of distraction.”
Many experts believe that distracted driving—particularly sending and reading text messages—might explain the ominous trends in traffic fatalities over the past few years after decades of overall decline. As this blog noted previously, of the 37,461 lives lost on U.S. roads in 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 3,450 people were killed in distraction-related crashes, and some experts believe that number is too low. The brunt of the increase in fatalities in recent years has been borne by bicyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians; the latter group seeing a hefty 22% increase in traffic deaths from 2014 to 2016.
The rise in texting, with its triple-threat combination of distractions, might go a long way toward explaining the increase in pedestrian and cyclist deaths, since drivers looking at their phones are more likely to miss smaller movements on the periphery of their vision. Handing out more tickets is a step, but a relatively minor one if most offenses remain unseen—and legally, police aren’t supposed to pull you over just for looking down a lot.
There is evolving technology to prevent the driver (but not the passengers) in a moving vehicle from sending or receiving text messages. But until the blocking apps and corresponding law are fine-tuned to the point where the technology is in widespread use, we can expect more texting tickets, and more unnecessary deaths.