People love laws that prevent texting while driving. They seem like good common sense laws that prohibit distractions that lead to accidents. But once the laws are written, cops have to go out and enforce them, and that's not as easy as it looks.
In one state, tickets for texting have gone down during the law's second year on the books... and it's not necessarily because people are texting less. Distracted drivers, it turns out, aren't as dumb as they look...
Pennsylvania's texting while driving prohibition went into effect in 2012. It's a $50 fine to send or receive texts or emails while driving.
Simple enough. But enforcement of the law has gone down in year two. In Philadelphia, for instance, police issued 243 for the violation in the law's first year, but only 91 during its second year.
It's not because Philly traffic cops are lazy. It's because Pennsylvania lawmakers are kind of dumb. From the Lehigh Valley Morning Call:
Unless a driver admits or a passenger tells police that a driver was sending a message, it's difficult to make a texting-while-driving citation stick, [Allentown police Capt. William Reinik] said. Otherwise, a person stopped for texting can simply say he or she was making a phone call, which is legal.
That's the main reason, Reinik and other experts say, Pennsylvania's law against texting while driving generated relatively few traffic tickets in its second full year compared with laws in neighboring states that entirely ban the use of hand-held devices behind the wheel.
Should using your phone at all be illegal? Reasonable people will disagree. But the point is that it's hard for a traffic cop to distinguish between a person accessing his phone for a "legal" purpose versus a prohibited purpose.
And while we all have a mental image of a teenage distracted driver who is texting "OMG, rlly? LOL" when she plows into a school bus full of handicapped children, let's remember that sometimes people are using their phones in the cars for legitimate or at least understandable purposes. "Don't forget to stop at the dry cleaners on your way back from the mall." "Turn around honey, game has been cancelled due to rain." "ZOMBIES EVERYWHERE. Pick up the kids and save yourselves!"
Would it be better if every driver dutifully pulled over to the side of the road to access these (and other far less pressing) messages and warnings? Sure. Of course it would. But I'm not sure how reasonable it is to expect law enforcement to be able to distinguish between various behaviors that all fundamentally involve a driver looking away from the road towards a device and using one hand to set something up.
Does anybody remember the old car radio? The one with the analogue dial that you had to tune just right to hear your favorite station once you got out from under the treeline? My Dad had one of those when I was growing up, and he was distracted as f**k trying to keep the tuner in place to hear whatever weak-ass Motown station we got out on Long Island. Smokey Robinson should have been singing, "I love it when we're cruisin' through stop signs." The solution to that problem wasn't law enforcement, it was technology; new technology that better integrated the radio into a safe driving experience. Now he lives in Florida and he says "play R&B," and then R. Kelly comes on and he curses about his stupid car, modern music, and pedophiles.
One day, everybody will be able to afford cars with voice-activated Bluetooth technology and poorest among us will feel like we're driving a Knight Industries Two Thousand. But until then, law enforcement is going to have a tough time saving us from distractions.