Hang up and drive: What’s wrong with Washington’s distracted-driver law

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece, reflective only of my personal views. I welcome your feedback, questions and ideas, because it so often helps to engage in conversation about things that we care about. If you wish to comment, I would appreciate it if you read this entire article first. Although I tend to be quite direct with my opinions, I have no wish to offend or upset anyone. I think this is a case of a law needing to be questioned, so I am speaking up.

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I am weary of legislation. I agree that we need laws, in a society with enough people who cannot be counted on to behave with courtesy, common sense or respect for others. Washington’s newest distracted-driver law seems to assume that people won’t change their behavior unless they are threatened with punishment. However, do the lawmakers truly believe that this threat will guarantee the behavior will change?

The distracted-driver law in a nutshell

The new law, which took effect July 23, forbids all handheld uses of cell phones, including calls, reading or composing messages, social media posting, etc. Don’t pick up that phone even if you’re stopped at a traffic light! Allowed are “common built-in electronics,” such as hands-free phones and satellite radio. Ditto 911 calls. Then things get a little complicated. Using a phone mounted in a dashboard cradle is allowed for some purposes involving “limited use of a finger.” Depending on where you live, there might or might not be a 6- month grace period to let drivers get used to the new rules; the fine is $136 for the first offense, going up to $234 for additional offenses within 5 years.

A more detailed summary of all these rules is here.

In principle, I have no quarrel with the distracted-driver law. I absolutely agree that the handheld use of cell phones while driving is distracting. However, I don’t agree that the best way to effectively address this issue is to make it illegal to use a phone while driving.

I just missed being a millenial (OK, I missed it by 34 years). Many of you can’t remember a time when we didn’t have cell phones; technology has moved so quickly over the past 20 years or so that it’s hard to believe we ever thought it was okay to get in a car without having some means to communicate before reaching our destination. But even if you take all the electronic devices out of the mix, there are still many things that can and do happen while we’re driving.

Distractions don’t all involve phones

For example: When I drive, I seldom listen to the radio but I do like to play music. I like to sing along (how do you think I learned “The Elements” before auditioning for TomFoolery last year?). I occasionally glance down briefly at the stereo controls. Good idea? Maybe not. Distracting? Probably. Should we ban car stereos, make them all voice-activated, or come up with an app that senses when the car is moving and locks the stereo controls? What if, instead of driving a car almost as old as I am, I drive one in which everything can be done hands-free?

Do you ever drive with one or more children in the car? Lots of you eat and drink while you’re driving, or there wouldn’t be all those drive-thru restaurants and coffee houses out there. I’m perfectly capable reaching for my coffee cup without looking down at it, but sometimes I do look anyway. I sometimes wave at someone while driving. Blush.

Of course, there are many distractions on the road that are not a matter of your choice. Practically everyone has had the experience of that maddening itch that only seems to happen when you’re driving, usually between your shoulder blades just out of reach of either hand. Another driver tailgating me is definitely a distraction. Driving on a rainy night, reflections off the water on the road are confusing as well as distracting. Around here, all kinds of animals might run out into the road in front of you. I’m sure everyone glances to one side or the other at beautiful scenery; I mean, we are in Washington. I do that myself.

Laws need to make sense, and be reasonably enforceable

Obviously it would be ridiculous to try to legislate against these things. If nothing else, it makes no sense to pass a law that has very little chance of being successfully enforced. I understand why cell phones have been targeted in this instance; but I believe that this law is a well-meaning but ultimately failed attempt to mitigate the problem. Here’s why.

Any lawmaker, state or federal, will tell you that one of the main challenges in the 21st century is that technology continues to move much faster than the legislative process. In a relatively short time, we went from relying on home phones and pay phones to practically everyone having phone service with them constantly. Thus, many years have gone by between cell phones becoming ubiquitous and Washington enacting a distracted-driving law aimed at those phones.

This law doesn’t seem to take into account the force of this long-term habit. Most of us have had cell phones for enough years that we are thoroughly steeped in the routine of using them whenever and wherever we wish. Regardless of good intentions, many people will find it very hard to suddenly stop using their phones in the car. I’m not suggesting we don’t ask them to do it, I’m saying I don’t believe passing a law will necessarily result in the desired outcome.

So what’s the solution?

Clearly there is no way to completely eliminate distractions while driving. I usually turn off my phone or at least turn down the sound when I’m in the car, but I don’t always remember to do it; sometimes that damned chime reminding me about someone’s birthday takes me by surprise. When there are passengers in the car, talking can’t always be avoided. And listening to music or audio books is a real pleasure while driving.

My suggestion is that this is a matter of education, not legislation. When I was in Driver’s Ed, we regularly watched films that were intended to scare us into driving safely. Education about distractions, including phones and other electronics, ought to be included in the driver-licensing process. Personally I think when people renew their licenses, this should be included in that process, as well as information about changes to other driving-related laws. How about a town-meeting-type gathering, one in every county, where residents can ask questions of State Patrol officers and local government officials?

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WSTC) has implemented a program to educate the public about the risks posed by distracted drivers. It’s a start. Read about it here.

Most people I have spoken to about this subject simply don’t believe using their phones in the car is all that distracting. They also believe the chances of them getting caught on their phones is very small. We ought to be able to find a positive motivation to put the phone down, somewhere out of reach in the car, or better yet, simply turn the thing off until actually needed. I think most people are sensible enough to agree to not use their handheld phones while driving, but it will take some time, and some positive reinforcement, for them to get used to the idea (again).

I think it’s great that various laws have drawn so much attention to the issue of distractions while driving, and the potential risks involved. But as a whole, distractions simply can’t be eliminated, so it’s in all our interests to learn all we can about how best to minimize their effects.

I guess I’d better pull over and stop typing now. Those flashing blue lights behind me are really distracting.

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