Stop Texting-Drivers—or Lose Highway Funds

The Senate should pass the ALERT Drivers Act of 2009 (known in long form as the “Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act”), which would require states to adopt penalties against people who text while driving—or forfeit 25% of highway financing. Pro or con?

ALERT Act Will Save Lives

Distracted drivers come in all forms, but none are more dangerous than the ones who divert their eyes from the road to type text messages. The consequences of texting while driving can be horrific, dealing death and serious injury to both drivers and to the innocent victims in their path.

Given the implicit danger and growing popularity of texting while driving, we must act in the name of driver and occupant safety—an area in which Congress has an impressive track record. Advancements in seat belt use, drunk driving reforms, and other safety measures are largely attributable to ALERT-type laws that pressured states to prioritize between a driver’s individual liberties and the greater public good. The result? Safer roadways and fewer fatalities.

There is broad public support for outlawing texting while driving. The results of a national survey commissioned by Ford and released on Sept. 25 showed that 93% of U.S. drivers support a nationwide ban, and 86% believe that handheld texting while driving is “very dangerous.” Even the wireless telecommunications industry supports state bans on texting while driving. Verizon Wireless (VZ) and the American Trucking Assn. back the ALERT bill.

If states do not respond to the overwhelming evidence that texting while driving is dangerous and should be banned, there will be consequences. By withholding substantial federal funds, the ALERT legislation imposes a compelling incentive for states to outlaw texting while driving.

Federal involvement in this issue is politically responsible. As it relates to national highway safety, the ALERT bill is not just what we expect—it is what we deserve.

Con: The Act Needs Revision First

GHSA does not support the current version of the Alert Drivers Act of 2009—legislation that would require states to adopt laws prohibiting texting while driving or lose 25% of highway funds—as we feel states should be encouraged to pass texting bans with the carrot of financial incentives, not the stick of a sanction. In fact, this is a terrible time to consider reducing highway funding given the economic necessity of these dollars in the states. Additionally, 18 states have already passed these bans, with the majority of them having acted in 2009. We expect at least 30 more states will act in the next two years—all without federal intervention.

There are a number of other things the federal government can do to address texting while driving:

• Fund research to develop effective methods for enforcing texting and cell-phone bans. While a number of states currently have banned texting, enforcing such bans has proven difficult. Additional study of the effectiveness of state bans is needed.

• Sponsor research to determine the nature and scope of the distracted driving problem. It is very difficult to ascertain the entirety of the problem given that the public is unlikely to readily admit guilt in a crash investigation. Special studies are needed using subpoenaed phone records to determine the involvement of phoning or texting in a crash.

• Fund a media campaign to alert the public to the dangers of distracted driving. This effort is needed to help develop a culture that will make the practice socially unacceptable, similar to the way drunk driving has come to be perceived by the vast majority of the public.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

JK

How about we jail morons without any common sense, huh? I think that will work lovely. Do we really need more laws? Seriously? We need a law to tell these idiots that they can text while driving 75 mph on the freeway? Why don't we make up another legislation for ladies? I almost got hit by a witch who was putting her make up on while she was driving. But we won't, will we? And those freeway cops will never catch those ignorant drivers until they end up in an accident. What a lovely society we live in. Millions of laws and idiots who have no idea how to even practice them.

jAKE

What about talking on a CB radio and driving? Or typing on a computer while driving? Are those distractions? Can we be trained in a driving course to be better at these things? If that cannot be taught, then why should we allow public servants to do these things? I understand that they have a job to do and we give them some authority to bend the rules in favor of "safer streets," but if these are true distractions that can't be overcame, then what is stopping a public servant from crashing while on the job? Should we be gambling with public safety?

Tammy

I am all for the ALERT bill. People just don't stop doing stupid things unless they are fined. Yes, it is sad that we have to enact such laws against stupidity, but that is the fact of our modern selfish society. Not one more person should suffer except the morons that put us in jeopardy.

Christopher Hart

I am 100% against texting while driving.

Marcy

It is important to think broadly about tackling distracted driving beyond cell phone use and texting. Most distractions are caused by these and other factors, including kids asking questions from the backseat, music on the radio, road signs, reaching for a toll fare, and many other distractions inside and outside of the car.

We won't be able to legislate, restrict via technology, or remove all of the distractions that cause distracted driving so we need to go right to the root cause--the driver's inability to focus and react quickly enough. Research about how the brain works and its impact in driving situations makes it clear that brain performance is the biggest factor in driving safely.

We have found a way to directly affect a driver's ability to focus and react through brain performance training. Posit Science commercialized this technology in DriveSharp, a brain fitness software product endorsed by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

To make a dent in distracted driving, let's reward drivers and provide incentives from fleet operators, insurance carriers, car manufacturers, and DMV's for those who take the steps to improve their driving overall.

Krystal Kid

Eighty percent of all rear end collisions (the most frequent vehicle accident) are caused by driver inattention, following too closely, external distraction (talking on cell phones, shaving, applying makeup, fiddling with the radio or CD player, kids, texting, etc.) and poor judgment.

There's not much you can do about a rear end collision, so I went out and got one of these sparebumpers.

Dean R

Just say no to ALERT. Viva la texting while driving!

juan

Just say, "Hey, drivers, don't text while driving--you will get caught, stupid." They will probably stop.

Roman E.

Many states--more than a third of them--already have laws on the books against it. But what's really surprising is how dangerous texting and driving is. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute did a study on it revealing that it significantly raises the chance of a crash.

For info can be found here: http://blogs.journalism.cuny.edu/interactive2010/2009/10/09/texting-and-driving/

Jeff Toister

I'm sure we all want safer roadways. However, from a purely practical standpoint, this issue would be better addressed by better enforcement of existing laws against reckless driving and other dangerous driving habits that can occur due to a myriad of distractions (not just texting).

The more laws we have on the books the more complicated it gets for even well-meaning citizens to comply. Meanwhile, law enforcement offers pay attention to symptoms (cell phone use, texting, etc.) rather than whether or not someone is driving in an unsafe manner.

Vince

Regardless of the merits of a law like this, I am against extortion, especially when the federal government does it.

Nesibe

Don't text while driving. I'm against it.

sue

I agree that this is not the right economic climate to take away federal highway money. Those funds are needed to stimulate the economy. How about offering states more money if they require education about distracted driving as part of driver training?

Alexander D. Mitchell IV

I have a question: Will the penalty actually be 25% of all highway funds, or will this be a repeat of the debacle over raising the drinking age to 21, where everyone "knows" that any state that didn't raise the drinking age to 21 would lose "all their Federal highway money" when in reality it was 8% of one matching funding program that was threatened?

Marc

I agree that you'll never eliminate all distracted driving, and it would be impossible to ban things like eating while driving.

But that's not a reason not to ban texting while driving. If you have the law on the books, it makes it easier to cite a driver who's caught doing that specific act instead of the more amorphous, harder-to-define "reckless driving."

If someone gets into an accident, the law might provide a way for states to subpoena cell phone records and prove that a driver was texting or talking at the time.

People forget that 30 to 40 years ago, drunk driving and driving without seatbelts were both pretty common activities. It took a combination of laws and public information campaigns to change that, but these days the vast majority of Americans wear seat belts and are much more aware of the dangers of drunk driving.

Texting should be treated the same way. We need a combination of a major public information campaign, and tough penalties, to change American's mindset. Right now texting is even more dangerous than drinking in some ways, because drunk drivers know they're impaired but texting drivers think they're fine.

Matthew Romoser

I am a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying driver performance and training. I have seen firsthand the dangers of texting and driving. In a nutshell, any in-vehicle device that takes your eyes away from the road for 2 seconds or more within a 6 second period (i.e., a single 2 second glance or a series of shorter glances adding up to 2 seconds) increases your likelihood of being in a crash tenfold if a hazard should materialize while you're engaged in the task. Texting is by far the most dangerous of all in-vehicle distractions.

Vernon Betkey says, "In fact, this is a terrible time to consider reducing highway funding given the economic necessity of these dollars in the states."

Nobody is talking about using this as a MEANS of reducing highway funding. The bottom line is, if the states are proactive and do what should be done for the public welfare (Banning texting ... and why stop there? States should include hand-held cell phone use, eating, applying makeup, and looking for songs on I-Pods while they're at it.) then they stand to lose nothing in terms of highway funds. So, using "this is a bad time to reduce highway funds" as an argument against this bill is misguided and misleading.

phyllis greenberg

This is so serious. I live in LA. There is not a time when I leave my home that I am not surrounded with people eating, putting make up on, holding phones and texting. I'm worried about the fact that people are going to die because of this. I am prepared to go to Washington and get involved politically. E-mail appropriate information. I will be there. People are glib. It's shocking.

Wizard Prang

We already have a law against "careless driving," so why not use that?

We aren't enforcing the laws on the books, and we need another one?

We don't need this law.

Join the Debate

 

Participate More!

Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!