Last week, Wisconsin joined the 23 states in the battle to ban texting, typing, and talking while driving a car. “It is a situation in which technology moves beyond the laws of the state and this is a law that has us catch up with technology,” said Governor Jim Doyle when he signed the bill into law. The law will impose a fine of $20-$400 on drivers caught texting or emailing behind the wheel, a fine similar to California’s anti-distracted driving law.
So far, a nationwide distracted driving ban has stalled in congress, as critics doubt that state and local authorities have the resources to adequately combat what Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood calls an “epidemic” that kills 6,000 people each year. That’s why LaHood enlisted the support of MIT scientists to develop technology that can detect when drivers are using their cell phones inappropriately while driving. “People said you couldn’t get drunk drivers off the road, but with strong enforcement it’s been done,” he said. “Strong enforcement will get cell phones and BlackBerrys out of people’s hands while they’re driving.”
Meanwhile, parents and teenagers are beginning to take on the fight against the “epidemic” head on. Bethany Brown, a 16-year-old from Arizona, for example, recently won a nationwide competition for producing a video PSA condemning distracted driving. The PSA depicts an accident caused by texting, followed by a “redo” in which the teen teen ignores her phone and avoids the accident. The PSA concludes “there are no redos in real life.”
Allstate Insurance Company is also campaigning against distracted driving. The company has set up “action against distraction” demonstrations throughout the country to show the dangers of vehicle distractions firsthand. Drivers are asked to drive the course three times: once focused, then speaking on a cell phone, and finally while texting. The number of cones hit increases each time.
Clearly, Wisconsin’s new bill shows that the campaign against distracted driving is making progress. But until Congress approves a nationwide ban, highways aren’t likely to experience the kind of game change moment LaHood says is necessary to make texting while driving a complete taboo.