Distracted Driving: Killer of a Problem

There will be continued carnage on our roadways, unless we succeed at promoting a social norm that stigmatizes distracted driving. State and local laws can't solve this problem alone, but they have a key role to play.
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In an investigative report released last week, authorities in Knoxville, Tenn., concluded that a texting driver was responsible for a deadly crash involving two school buses. According to the report, the driver of bus No. 44 was sending and receiving text messages on Dec. 2, 2014, when he suddenly made a sharp left turn, crossed the concrete median and smashed into another school bus, flipping it onto its side. Two young children and a teacher's aide were killed, and many others were seriously injured. The driver of No. 44 suffered severe injuries, and died earlier this month, six months after the crash.

It seems clear from the investigative report that the driver of No. 44 would have faced vehicular-homicide charges if he had survived. But, short of causing a fatal crash, what's the penalty for texting while driving in Tennessee? It's a $50 fine. What message does that send about the seriousness of the offense?

It's an open question whether we're going to succeed in curbing the behavior of distracted drivers, but we surely need to get serious about trying. The ultimate solution to the distracted driving problem is to take the human driver out of the equation. However, widespread reliance on fully autonomous robotic vehicles is at least two decades away. In the meantime, policy makers will continue to face tough decisions, balancing individual rights and public safety, to prevent fatalities and serious injuries from distracted driving. Our current laws -- not only in Knoxville -- are woefully inadequate. For example, take a look at my own state of Massachusetts:

Imagine you're driving with your family on a two-lane suburban road outside Boston at around 50 miles an hour when another car approaches from the opposite direction. As the two cars close at a combined speed of 100 miles per hour, separated by a mere five feet on opposite sides of the painted center line, is it okay with you if the other driver is using a handheld device to enter GPS coordinates, look up a phone number, or dial a call?

Massachusetts' Safe Driving Act basically says to that oncoming driver, "If you're 18 or older, no problem." The 2010 law prohibits reading or writing a text or email on a handheld device while driving, but permits numerous other uses of the same device.

Is the Massachusetts Legislature comfortable with that mixed message?

Our willingness to share the road with others depends on maintaining widespread adherence to the social contract -- codified in law -- that each driver will exercise due care. Without a high level of trust in the good sense, responsibility, and survival instincts of other drivers, that basic social contract begins to unravel.

A 2014 national opinion survey, conducted by the AAA Foundation, vividly captured the dimensions of the problem. Mary Maguire, from AAA-New England, presented key findings from the study at a recent State House legislative briefing organized by Rep. Cory Atkins and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

First the good news: 96.4 percent said they consider it unacceptable for a driver to type a text or email while driving.

But 36.1 percent of those same drivers admitted to reading a text or email while driving in the past 30 days, and 8.6 percent said they did so fairly often or regularly.

The Massachusetts Legislature is now facing two key issues related to distracted driving. The first is how to strengthen the enforceability of the state's current ban on using handheld devices for texting while driving.

At a recent State House briefing, State Police Lt. Stephen Walsh presented an evaluation of intensive, high-visibility enforcement efforts aimed at curbing distracted driving in the state.

The State Police study identified several impediments to making the current law work, including the difficulty of distinguishing whether a distracted driver -- as viewed by an officer from a distance through a closed window in a moving car -- is actually texting or just entering GPS coordinates, something that is not against the rules.

Walsh said police hear a litany of excuses. "'I wasn't texting...I was entering a phone number. I was reading my GPS.' It really caused us difficulty in citing a texting violation," he said.

To counter those explanations, he said, officers sometimes rely on an older, more generalized law against "impeded operation."

A second issue -- which bears directly on the first one -- is whether the Legislature should adopt an outright ban on the use of handheld devices while driving, including for phone calls. Studies have shown that the risk of a crash increases 300 percent when a driver is reaching for a phone or manually dialing.

Fourteen states have already taken this step, including the "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire.

A handheld ban is not a panacea, but, among other benefits, it eliminates a key barrier to enforcement of texting bans by essentially making the act of holding a digital device while driving an offense, with no requirement to prove the purpose for which it is being used. It's a stopgap measure that buys time for consideration of more comprehensive approaches to the distracted-driving problem.

Some skeptics have correctly argued that there's nothing new about distracted driving. However, the pervasive use of digital devices has sharply escalated the degree of danger to an entirely new level.

The central policy question is this: Where should we draw the line on the degree of risk that a distracted driver is permitted to impose on others? And, closely related to that question, what are the appropriate penalties for distracted driving that will send a credible and forceful message to the public?

Over the long term, technological innovation -- including driverless cars -- may make this problem go away. In the meantime, there will be continued carnage on our roadways, unless we succeed at promoting a social norm that stigmatizes distracted driving. State and local laws can't solve this problem alone, but they have a key role to play. And, stopgap technological solutions, mandated by law, may be needed as well.

An earlier version of this post ran in The Boston Globe.

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