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Texting while driving: hot public policy issue.

During the past 2 years, state lawmakers have made texting while driving (TWD) one of the hottest public policy issues in the country. As of this writing, 18 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted all-driver texting bans since 2007 and another 9 states have imposed similar bans on young drivers.

Why have state legislators moved so quickly on TWD? Three reasons come to my mind.

The first is simply the sheer numbers involved. CTIA, The Wireless Assn. (www.ctia.org) estimates 87 percent of Americans now own a cell phone. More than 110 billion text messages were sent in December 2008, compared with 9.8 billion messages in December 2005. Statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also show that 11 percent of drivers (1,050,000 vehicles) use hand-held devices during daylight hours.

While no data exist on the actual number of auto accidents caused by drivers who text, recent mass transit accidents in California and Massachusetts have driven public interest in the inherent dangers of TWD. In each case, the transit operators were texting at the time of the accidents.

The rash of TWD laws also may relate to more research. Early studies conducted in simulation labs attempted to determine the effects of cellular phone usage on driving behaviors among relatively small groups of individuals. But in July 2009, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) unveiled a major study conducted using sophisticated cameras and vehicle instrumentation to continuously observe drivers' behaviors for more than 6 million miles. The VTTI researchers found that those who sent or received text messages while driving were 23.2 times more likely to be involved in an automobile crash.

Recent public attitude surveys also have helped shape the TWD debate. For example, a Nationwide Insurance survey of 1,500 Americans taken in 2008 found 18 percent of respondents admitted to TWD and that number jumped to 39 percent for drivers under 30 years old. A similar Nationwide survey in August 2009 determined that 80 percent of respondents supported a TWD ban and two-thirds favored laws restricting phone calls while driving.

STATE LAWS

In 2007, Washington became the first state to enact a TWD ban. The law states that a person who sends, reads or writes a text message is guilty of a traffic infraction; however, there's no violation if the be person "enters a phone number or names in a wireless communication device for the purpose of making a phone call." Exceptions are allowed for individuals who operate emergency vehicles or drivers who are reporting illegal activities. Enforcement is considered a secondary offense, meaning a law enforcement officer cannot issue a TWD citation unless the driver has been stopped for another offense.

An analysis of the other state TWD laws yields some interesting similarities and a few differences. For example, TWD bills appear bipartisan in nature with an almost equal number of Democrats and Republicans introducing the bills.

Like Washington, other states prohibit drivers from using wireless communications devices to TWD, but the prohibition does not apply to hand-held devices used to make phone calls. The exceptions in most states are similar to those in Washington state. However, unlike Washington, most states treat TWD as a primary offense.

States differ widely on TWD penalties, with fines ranging from $20 to $500 for first-time offenders. In Utah, a TWD offense is considered a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $750 fine and 3 months in jail, or a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison if the texting driver caused an injury or death. Alaska's statute provides a 20-year prison term for a driver who causes a fatal accident while texting.

THE FEDERAL RESPONSE

Unlike their state counterparts, federal lawmakers have been slower to respond to the TWD issue. However, on July 29, four Democratic senators introduced the "Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act of 2009" or the "ALERT Drivers Act." If enacted, it would give states 2 years to pass a TWD ban or face the prospect of losing up to 25 percent of their federal highway funding.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also has announced plans to hold a two-day distracted driving summit in Washington, D.C., in late September, which will bring together TWD experts to "address a range of issues related to reducing accidents through enforcement, public awareness and education."

FIXING THE PROBLEM?

Given the pervasiveness of driving, cell phones and text messaging, a logical question is whether technology can help deal with the growing TWD phenomenon. Some recent examples appear promising.

For instance, Utah-based Safe Driving Systems, LLC has created Key2SafeDriving, a software solution that can be installed on a person's cell phone within minutes. Key2SafeDriving is not a jamming device. It reroutes calls directly to voice mail and sends automated text message responses informing the caller that the driver will respond once he reaches his destination.

Meanwhile, Nationwide Insurance has an exclusive partnership with Canadian-based Aegis Mobility to promote a similar product called DriveAssist. Nationwide also plans to offer policyholders an auto insurance discount for using the product.

WHAT LIES AHEAD?

More state TWD bills likely will be considered next year, particularly now that the Governors Highway Safety Assn., a trade group composed of state highway safety officials, has recently endorsed a resolution calling for an all-driver TWD ban. The debate should continue to center around whether TWD bans should apply to all drivers or only to young drivers. While teenagers send and receive the most text messages, some studies have shown that drivers in the 30- to 39-age category are also heavy TWD users.

Federal lawmakers aren't likely to pass their ALERT Drivers Act next year given other priorities and the reluctance of some in Congress to take highway funds from the states. But it is possible that Secretary LaHood's summit could lead to public discourse on aspects of this issue, such as the need to collect more data on TWD accidents or having states enact laws requiring hands-free devices only while driving. Only 7 states and D.C. have such laws.

Finally, education will continue to be important to efforts to address the TWD issue. The work undertaken by Nationwide Insurance in this regard is commendable and should be followed by others.

By DAVID B. REDDICK, Ph.D., director, public policy research, NAMIC

David B. Reddick, Ph.D., is director of public policy research for the National Assn. of Mutual Insurance Companies. Reach him at dreddick@namic.org.
U.S.
DISTRACTED DRIVING LAWS
(As of September 2009)

Statewide CA, CT, D.C., NJ, NY,
hand-held OR, UT, WA.
bans
(7 states
plus D.C.)

Local option MA, MI, NM, OH, PA.
cell phone
bans
(5 states)

Texting bans AK, AR, CA, CO, CT,
(all drivers) D.C., IL, LA, MD, MN,
(18 states NH, NJ, NY, NC, OR,
plus D.C.) TN, UT, VA, WA.

Young driver DE, IN, KS, ME, MS,
texting bans M0, NE, TX, WV.
(9 states)

School bus AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT,
driver cell DE, D.C., GA, IL, KY,
phone bans LA, MA, MN, NH, NJ,
(21 states NC, OH, OR, RI, TN,
plus D.C.) TX, VA.

Video AL, AK, AZ, CA, CO,
prohibitions CT, D.C., FL, IL, KS,
in sight of LA, ME, MD, MA, MI,
driver MN, NE, NH, NJ, NM,
(36 states NY, NC, OK, OR, PA,
plus D.C.) RI, SC, SD, TN, TX,
 UT, VT, VA, WA, WV,
 WI, WY.

Sources: The Insurance Institute for Highway
Safety, the Governors Highway Safety Assn.,
National Council of State Legislatures and NAMIC.

Have you ever texted while driving?

Yes 22.2%
No 77.8%

AA&B poll posted June 1 on agentandbroker.com
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Title Annotation:LEGISLATIVE Roundup
Author:Reddick, David B.
Publication:American Agent & Broker
Date:Oct 1, 2009
Words:1285
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