New and improved laws against distracted driving are popping up nationwide. This is partially thanks to the statistical consensus that talking, texting, and typing while driving has a significant impact on vehicle accidents and has made distracted driving the number one killer of teenagers. It’s also the result of a media offensive that culminated on April 30 with Oprah Winfrey’s No Phone Zone Day. This Thursday, June 10, Washington State will become the newest state to jump on the safer driving band wagon and make the use of a handheld cellular device a primary offense.
Citing the milestone, psychology professors Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris penned an editorial for The Seattle Times arguing that distracted driving laws miss the point: it’s not handheld devices that cause accidents, they say, it’s conversation in general. While this is a valid point, it’s difficult to deny that staring down at a cell phone is more dangerous than having a conversation with someone in the passenger seat. Simons and Chabris take their argument a step even further. “State laws barring the use of handheld phones will not solve the problem,” they write, because “laws that actively promote the use of hands-free headsets as a way to increase safety might paradoxically make people less safe. They give drivers a false sense of confidence that they can safely hold a hands-free phone conversation without diminishing their ability to notice” unexpected obstacles.
Their analysis misses the point of the cell phone restrictions. Of course laws banning handheld devices will not solve the problem of distracted driving. There are still dozens of distractions, including music, food, and other passengers, to take the driver’s focus off the road. But rooting out hand-held devices is something that we can do now, and will reduce distracted driving accidents while raising awareness about the dangers of texting while driving.
A reader recently sent me a video depicting a particularly tragic accident caused by distracted driving. It’s graphic almost to the point of gratuitous, but I suggest watching the video if only because it seems to be an accurate –though heavy handed– worst case scenario of the consequences of distracted driving. It’s difficult to watch the video and not come to the conclusion that we should do anything we can to keep drivers’ eyes off their cell phones and on the road.