Our Texting While Driving Laws Are Absurd

distracted driving

Justin Ronald Jalbert will soon be on trial for manslaughter after hitting a bicyclist along a county road in Traill County, north of Fargo. Jalbert was allegedly texting while driving when he hit the bicyclist, and his attorney says that because of this Jalbert has been treated unfairly by the media.

After all, laws against cell phone use while driving have become a political fad over the last several years complete with a rabid following of proponents. Editorial boards have engaged in much finger-wagging on the subject, and worse. Given that atmosphere, Jalbert hasn’t gotten much of a fair shake.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in exploring the nuances of these laws, and there is plenty of nuance to consider. For instance, Mr. Jalbert apparently told law enforcement initially that he hit the bicyclist while looking for something in his glove compartment:

Court documents say Jalbert initially told a North Dakota state trooper he was reaching into the glove box to get a CD when he looked up too late to avoid Hawkinson on a bike about 10 yards ahead of him.

In a later interview, however, Jalbert allegedly told another Highway Patrol officer he was typing a text message on his phone at the time of the crash.

He was looking down at his phone, then looked up just in time to see Hawkinson, court documents state.

He told the trooper he deleted the messages because he was afraid of the consequences.

It will be up to the jury to decide what is and is not true in these statements, but supposing for a moment that Jalbert did lie about his cell phone use, why would he do that? Why is looking in your glove box for a CD better than looking down at your phone? In both cases your eyes are off the road, after all.

It’s because looking at your phone while driving is a crime, and a hot-button political issue popular with newspaper editorial boards and radio talks hows, but looking at your radio or the scenery or another passenger or your hamburger or in your glove box isn’t a crime or a political issue.

What the law says is that one sort of distraction – looking at your phone – is a crime, and potentially a felony. But another sort, just about anything else you could possibly be distracted by in your car, is not a crime. Or, at worse, it’s misdemeanor reckless driving.

The icing on this cake of absurdity is the fact that distracted driving accounts for far fewer crashes, and far fewer deaths, than any other type of distraction in the car.

Law enforcement reported 18,356 crashes on North Dakota roads in 2012, the last year for which numbers are available according to the NDDOT. Of that number, cell phone use was a “contributing factor” in just 165 crashes, less than one percent of the total.

Even if added to an additional 36 crashes attributed to the use of non-phone electronic devices such as GPS units and DVD players, the crash total rises to just 201 crashes — or 1.09 percent of all crashes.

By comparison, distractions in the car — such as eating or interacting with other passengers — contributed to 660 total crashes.
That state number for distraction by cell phones jibes with national statistics. Cell phone use was a factor in just 1.2 percent of fatal crashes and 0.98 percent of all crashes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s Distracted Driving report from 2012.

When you’re driving you shouldn’t be texting or fiddling in your glove box. You should be paying attention to the road. And if you’re driving recklessly, you should be held accountable for that. But does it make any sense to parse the sorts of distractions in the car, and single out one sort of distraction as worse than others?

Of course it doesn’t. Yet that’s exactly what these new laws are doing.