Editorial: Consider banning all cellphone use by drivers

7:05 PM, Apr. 3, 2013  |  Comments
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States that implement texting bans have been "moderately successful" at reducing crashes, according to a recent study in the April issue of American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.

The study - "Texting Bans and Fatal Accidents on Roadways: Do They Work? Or Do Drivers Just React to Announcements of Bans?" - by two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee economists, Rahi Abouk and Scott Adams, found that bans enforced as primary offenses, meaning police could pull you over if they see you texting and driving, worked better than bans enforced as secondary offenses.

More significantly, though, the study found that bans on texting and driving worked to reduce accidents, at first. But within a few months, the number of accidents returned to "near former levels."

"This is suggestive of drivers reacting to the announcement of the legislation only to return to old habits shortly afterward," Abouk and Adams' study said.

This is disheartening news in a state where a texting-while-driving ban went into effect in December 2010, with fines that range from $20 to $400.

Wisconsin is one of 38 states and the District of Columbia that prohibit texting and driving.

Still, the arrests for this offense have been few.

One of the problems is that it's difficult for law enforcement officers to know if someone is texting, looking at a photo on a cellphone or making a cellphone call, therefore making it difficult to prove a driver was sending a message.

Of the three actions, only the texting is illegal, but all three actions can distract a driver.

Perhaps it's time we started to think about banning all cellphone use by drivers, not just texting.

We don't want to infringe on people's rights, but driving is a privilege, not a right, and a distracted driver is not just a threat to him- or herself, but to others on the road and pedestrians.

We've already enacted a total ban for some drivers. In November, drivers with a learner's permit or probationary license were prohibited from using a cellphone or other wireless telephone while driving, except in emergencies.

While these are more inexperienced drivers, an experienced driver can just as easily be distracted by a mobile phone call, and even more by composing a text message

A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study has shown that a driver takes his or her eyes off the road for 4.6 second over a 6-second interval while sending a text. If that driver is going 55 mph, the vehicle has traveled the length of a football field in that time.

That can't be safe.

As drivers, we already do a lot to distract us from the task at hand - driving safely. Vying for our attention are passengers, the stereo, DVD players, food, beverages, the weather, scenery, billboards.

Cellphone calls needlessly add to the distractions; text messages compound it. Drivers should pull over if they have to take a call or send a text or they should hand over those duties to a passenger.

A ban on all use of handheld phones by drivers will make it easier for law enforcement officials to enforce existing rules and it will make our roads safer.

Maybe it's time state officials considered it.

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