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Text ban a finger in the dike of poor driving habits -- and should be dropped

Michigan moved one step closer to enacting a texting-while-driving-ban with the passage of a Senate bill that would make such behavior a primary offense. Yet a fundamental question remains unanswered by proponents of such legislation.

Why are particular behaviors singled out for scrutinization and banning while other, similarly dangerous, behaviors go unaddressed?

The Senate bill was an amendment of an earlier House bill, which had banned texting while driving as a secondary offense. That matter will have to be reconciled before any bill becomes law, but the entire issue belies a larger matter, namely: Most, if not all, jurisdictions already have laws on the books to deal with reckless driving. Why is texting, or cell phone use in general, a larger issue than other reckless behaviors?

We’ve all witnessed fellow drivers performing myriad tasks behind the wheel that make us shake our heads -- and shake in our boots. People eat, drink beverages, smoke, fiddle with the radio, shuffle through stacks of CDs, turn around to discipline unruly kids, read newspapers and maps, and do countless other mindless things that distract them from the serious chore of driving.

Does law enforcement not already have the authority to pull over and ticket drivers if such conduct is causing dangerous driving?

Twenty-one states, as well as the District of Columbia, already have enacted some form or texting or cell phone bans. In addition, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has proposed a rule to ban commercial truck and bus drivers from texting while driving. The DOT proposal was announced March 31 and seeks to make permanent a temporary ban -- announced in January by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood -- that applies to bus and commercial truck drivers of vehicles over 10,000 pounds.

On April 1, Iowa became 21st state to ban texting. It bans all cell phone use for intermediate drivers. The governor's Highway Safety Association expects 15 more states to pass a texting ban this year.

Nebraska banned it as a secondary offense, but some legislators there are angry about the law not being a primary offense. People, some lawmakers argue, will continue to text surreptitiously -- in their laps, for example -- thus making the situation even more dangerous. Opponents of a primary ban fear abuse by law enforcement officers, such as racial profiling and using texting as a pretense for pulling over (dubiously) suspicious drivers.

The City of Dearborn’s cell phone ordinance allows officers to issue a civil infraction as a secondary violation to anyone using a handheld phone while driving. There is no differentiation made between texting and voice cell phone use. The ordinance is not enforced if a driver is using a hands-free device.

“We tend to use a lot of discretion with this ordinance,” said Sgt. Doug Topolski. “Personally, I issue the violation in conjunction with violations such as following too closely or disregarding a red light or stop sign.”

The Michigan bill passed the Republican-led chamber by a 28-10 vote, with only Republicans opposing the measure. It now advances to the Democrat-led House, which probably won’t take up the measure until returning from a two-week break that ends in mid-April.

The new Senate version would make texting while driving a primary offense starting July 1. Police could pull over and cite motorists simply for texting, without needing a current primary offense, such as speeding, as a pretense. Fines would be $100 for a first offense and $200 for each subsequence violation. No points would be accrued on a driver’s record.

Police have concerns
Police have complained to lawmakers that making the ban a secondary offense would hinder their ability to preventively cite motorists before accidents occur, according to Mlive.com. Nevertheless, some lawmakers doubt a tougher policy making texting a primary offense will pass the Legislature.

Topolski says that existing laws -- reckless or careless driving violations, for example -- fail to prevent traffic accidents.

“The problem with relying on careless or reckless driving violations to enforce irresponsible cell phone use is that there is little deterrent value,” Topolski said. “By the time a driver fulfills the elements of careless or reckless driving (offenses), the damage is already done. Distracted driving in general, and driving while texting on a cell phone in particular, are so pervasive that they probably warrant specific enforcement. Any officer with a few years on the job can give you an example of a fatal crash caused by distracted driving.

“I would rather see a broadly-worded statute that allows officers to issue a primary-offense civil infraction for ANY type of distracted driving, whether caused by cell-phone use, GPS use, applying makeup during the rush-hour commute, reading a book while driving -- whatever has the potential to cause a crash. This type of statute would provide for the deterrence factor necessary to prevent a significant number of crashes and injuries. However, legislators may see this as giving officers too much discretion.”

Topolski also sees possible problems with the wording of the statute.

“The current legislation is a good start but I believe enforcement may be problematic the way the statute is currently written,” Topolski said. “For example, if we see someone texting and plan to issue the violation and the offender tells us they were using the phone to report an emergency, are we supposed to take their word for it? Get a search warrant for their phone records for a civil infraction? Or will the law require them to prove to us at the scene that they were in the process of texting an emergency report?”

The ban has gained steam in Michigan due to recent publicity surrounding accidents caused by distracted driving. A teenage driver killed in a January traffic accident in Ottawa County was exchanging text messages with his girlfriend and, according to police reports, got distracted and crashed.

"People are becoming more aware about this issue," said Rep. Lee Gonzales, a Democrat from Flint and a supporter of a texting ban, told Mlive.com. "There's a lot of attention placed on it."

Drivers do the dumbest things
Tragic as such incidents are, there can be no doubt that other mindless behavior also contributes to accidents. Car stereos probably are the most notorious culprits of driver distraction, be it fumbling with buttons and CDs or simply being deprived of the sense of hearing due to loud volume.

Is texting really more dangerous than a man shaving or a woman applying makeup in her rearview mirror? Eating a Big Mac and swilling on a Coke while driving with one’s legs also seems a bit imprudent. Will we soon see legislation to ban every and all dangerous behavior?

If someone is capable of smoking, talking, texting and changing a baby’s diaper while navigating through rush-hour Lodge Freeway traffic, more power to him -- as long as he isn’t driving recklessly. Of course, such a notion seems ridiculous, yet we all witness such behavior every day.

There’s no defending reckless and dangerous behavior. But, coming on the heels of a trillion-dollar health care bill that promises to intrude on our lives in ways unimaginable, and with memories of how our “secondary” seat belt law morphed into the primary-offense cash cow it is today, Michiganders have every right to be skittish.

The root of the problem remains Americans’ nonchalant attitude toward driving itself. Liberals love to point to Europe as a model when defending social welfare initiatives. Given the abysmal state of the EU members’ economies, and the apocalyptic projections for their future obligations, such a laudatory view seems incredulous.

But the western European nations do have a healthy respect for the job of driving an automobile. Our perception of the German Autobahn as a playground for freewheeling daredevils is skewed. Despite nearly unlimited speed restrictions, the Autobahn boasts accident and fatality rates much lower than those of its American counterparts, in great measure due to drivers’ observations of simple rules.

The first and foremost is that driving is not a peripheral exercise. It is treated as a primary and serious function in and of itself. Most cars built for the European are bereft of even such innocuous trinkets as cup holders. Driving is a serious business, and motorists respect that fact.

Americans may have transformed the European landscape with ubiquitous signs of McDonald’s and Coca Cola. But our counterparts on the continent refrain, for the most part, from treating lunch as the ideal time to wolf down a Whopper while tooling through Bavarian countryside at 120 mph.

It’s one of European tradition we colonists should embrace.

Contact John Kibilko at jkibilko@live.com.

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