Seattle attorney proposes sweeping changes to texting while driving laws

By Jason Epstein, Attorney at Law

Raise your hand if you think people who are convicted of drinking and driving should be punished with a $124 ticket and no mark on their driving record…

I doubt very many of you have your hands up, but if you do, feel free to click out of this article now. For the rest of us, it is safe to say that we would be up in arms if drunk driving was punished with a $124 slap on the wrist. Luckily, the penalty for a first time drinking and driving offense is much higher, including an expensive fine, jail time and a suspended license. The reason the law is that strict is simple: drinking and driving is very dangerous to both the drunk driver and innocent motorists on the road. With this in mind, my question to you is: if we all agree that penalties should be harsh for a DUI, wouldn’t you want them to be just as high for anything else that has similarly negative effects on a driver’s ability to react quickly and concentrate?

Turns out there is a very common activity that does just that. According to research by the University of Utah, using a cell phone while driving delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a BAC of .08. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, either. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the average time a texter takes their eyes off the road is 4.6 seconds. Driving at 65 mph, this means that a texting driver would have their eyes off the road for over 438 feet – more than the length of a home run to dead center field of any MLB stadium. Knowing that texting while driving is at least as dangerous as drinking and driving, wouldn’t it make sense for the laws to have equal punishments? Unfortunately, this is not the case, and this dangerous activity is only punished with a $124 ticket.

In 2009, distraction from cell phone use while driving caused 995 deaths. Additionally, 448,000 injuries resulted from distracted driving in 2009. These numbers show that cell phone use in cars is a real danger to everyone on the road, and is a problem that must be dealt with better. I believe that there are two ways to decrease these numbers, and both should happen simultaneously.

1) We must increase awareness and education on the dangers of texting while driving. We know as a society that drinking while driving is dangerous because it was taught to us at a young age and repeated time and time again. All schools have drinking and driving assemblies to help increase awareness of the dangers, so why not do the same for texting and driving. As the founder of Teens Against Distracted Driving, I have spoken to numerous schools and youth groups on the issue, but schools need to make education on the subject a part of the curriculum.

2) Change the law by increasing penalties. It is my firm belief that texting while driving should be punished in the same way that drinking and driving is. In order to prevent people from using their cell phones while driving, there needs to be real consequences that will act as an incentive to avoid that activity. Cell phone use in cars has proven to be just as dangerous as drinking and driving both in scientific studies and in real world statistics. A change in the law will make people think long and hard about the potential costs of sending a text while driving.

Texting while driving is a very serious issue that is only beginning to get the serious attention it deserves. Lawmakers both locally and nationally need to step up and enact laws with punishments similar to that of drinking and driving, even if it may seem like a drastic measure. Texting while driving has proven to be as dangerous as driving under the influence, and should be treated as same.

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