Distracted Driving In North Dakota Probably Isn't As Big A Problem As You Think


A ghost bike located outside of Grandin, N.D., honors the memory of Dave Hawkinson. David Samson / The Forum

Recently reporter Robin Huebner wrote a story about a widow and a state lawmaker who are planning on pushing legislation next year which would dramatically increase the penalties for distracted driving in North Dakota.

This was the headline: ‘A widow’s goal: ‘If you kill someone with your car, it should be a felony’

The widow in question is Amy Miller Hawkinson whose husband, Dave Hawkinson, was struck by a texting driver while cycling alongside a highway. The lawmaker she’s working with is Rep. Gail Mooney of District 20. The latter currently has Legislative Council writing legislation. “She believes since North Dakota has baseline charging requirements in drunken driving cases, it should have the same for distracted driving, especially when a person is killed,” Huebner reports.

There are some problems.

For one thing distracted driving in North Dakota – particularly distractions from phones – is not nearly the problem some make it out to be. This week I contacted the Department of Transportation for some statistics for the last five years available (2010-2015), and what found was that distracted driving accounted for less than 7 percent of all crashes which occurred in the state during that time frame:

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That’s hardly the picture of an epidemic warranting legislative action, I think.

But not all distracted driving has to do with cell phones. In fact, not even most distracted driving crashes are caused by cell phones. The Department of Transportation classifies distracted driving crashes into types of distractions including electronic communications devices (cell phones, etc.), non-communication electronic devices (iPods, etc.), in-car distractions (other passengers, food, etc.), and outside distractions (the sun, billboards, etc.). Even if we lump the two electronic devices categories together, what we find is that from 2010 to 2015 they were a factor in just 1.1 percent of crashes:

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Even if we look strictly at distracted driving crashes we find that the large majority of them – 83.4 percent, specifically – have nothing to do with electronic devices in the car at all:

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Keep in mind that North Dakota now has an organization called the North Dakota Active Transportation Alliance which formed to promote tougher penalties from distracted driving. They’d have you believe that distracted driving, which has become an issue alongside the rise of cell phone use, is an epidemic. But very rarely to these activists, or even the journalists who cover them, quantify the scope of the problem.

That’s too bad, because I think the public has a false impression of just how large a problem this is. Based on the data, it’s really not a large problem at all.

Which isn’t to diminish the seriousness of any given crash, or the suffering it may cause. But as a practical matter of public policy, can we really justify law which might make a crash caused by cell phone distraction a felony while a crash caused by, say, a distraction from a cup of coffee or a bee in the car or a billboard is not?

And keep in mind, even as the number of electronic devices in our cars has increased, our roads have gotten safer. Heck, bicycling alongside roads has gotten safer.

Nobody wants anybody to be hurt or, worse, to die. But sometimes we need to acknowledge the limits of what laws can accomplish.

Distracted driving is negligent, no doubt. But I’m not sure that increasing punishments for negligent, as opposed to outright criminal, activity is all that helpful. What will putting a teenager in jail who got into a crash because of her cell phone accomplish, really?

To me it sounds like we’re just increasing the number of victims in a tragedy.