In March 2012, Pennsylvania will become the 35th state to prohibit texting while driving. People who violate the law will be subject to a $50 fine. In contrast, the fine for drunk driving in Pennsylvania is $300. Among those states to ban texting while driving, the fines for drunk driving are all considerably stiffer than those for texting while driving. As a personal injury lawyer, I never understood this reasoning. After all, texting while driving is often far more dangerous than drunk driving.
In 2009, Car Driver magazine's editor, Eddie Alterman, did an experiment comparing the dangers of drunk driving to the dangers of texting while driving. While at a dessert airstrip, the experiment measured reaction times using a light mounted on a windshield for a driver who is intoxicated compared to when the same driver is texting while driving. When the light illuminates on the windshield, the driver is required to hit the brakes. While legally intoxicated, the driver's stopping distance from 70 MPH was reduced by 4 feet compared to when he was sober. While texting and driving, the same driver's stopping distance was reduced by 70 feet compared to when he was sober.
Texting while driving, reading an email while driving, and other distractions while driving are incredibly dangerous. In each situation, the driver's eyes are focused down at their cell phone. With a drunk driver, they are at least looking at the road. If a driver suddenly slams on their brakes, the driver who is looking down at their cell phone has no chance.
The fundamental danger behind texting while driving is that it distracts the driver from focusing on the road. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 15% of fatal auto accidents are caused by distracted driving. The number of injuries in auto accidents from distracted driving is 20%.
Texting while driving is particularly concerning among teens. According to the American Automobile Association, 50% of all teens admit to texting while driving. In 2002, the average monthly volume of text messages was 1 million. In 2008, the number was 110 million. Not surprising, the number of traffic deaths from distracted driving rose from 11% in 1999 to 16% in 2008.
How many deaths have been caused by texting while driving? The University of Texas Health Center looked at fatality data of auto accidents from 2001 to 2007. Based on that data, the University concluded there were over 16,000 deaths over a six-year period as a result of texting while driving.
Unless serious measures are taken to deter texting while driving, the number of deadly auto accidents will only increase. To reverse this trend, fines for texting should be as harsh, if not harsher, than those for drunk driving. Otherwise, more and more people will needlessly lose their lives.
National Highway Transportation Authority Website, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Lauds Pennsylvania for Enacting Tough Ban on Texting While Driving, November 14, 2011.
Car And Driver, Texting While Driving: How Dangerous Is It?, June 2009.
FCC.Gov, Texting While Driving, November 27, 2011.
Crunchtech, Study: Texting While Driving Responsible For 16,000 Deaths In 6 Years, September 24, 2010.