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On Nanny State Legislation

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Texting while driving is dangerous. The odds of crashing are 8 times higher than driving without distraction. That's worse than the crash risk for drivers intoxicated by alcohol at the legal limit! Despite the blatantly obvious impairments from text messaging, less than half of states have laws that prohibit this activity.

Think about that for a moment. Every state has laws against drunk driving. But less than half prohibit text messaging while driving and many of the laws that are in effect are so poorly enforced that they are ineffective.

This raises two related questions. First, why do only 19 states prohibit an activity that is more risky than drunk driving? Second, why are the laws that are in place so poorly enforced?



First, let's address regulatory inaction.

The state legislature in Arizona, for example, recently rejected a measure that would have prohibited texting while driving. One state senator was quoted as saying "Arizonans know it's dangerous to text while driving and should be trusted to make the right decision." Another referred to proposal as "nanny state legislation" that tries to regulate how people live their lives.

But, we regulate acceptable driving behavior all the time. You are prohibited from driving under the influence of alcohol. You are required to stop at traffic lights. You are required to drive at the posted speed. These regulations help to make driving safer (imagine if stopping at red lights was optional).

It would be nice if we could trust drivers to make the right decisions. But people don't always make the right decisions. That's why we have drunk driving laws.

That's why prohibiting text messaging while driving is a good idea. 50% of teen drivers report sending or receiving texts while behind the wheel. If people were making the right decisions, then the percentage of teens texting and driving should be ZERO.

Now let's turn to the enforcement issue.

The enforcement for the laws restricting texting and driving has been poor. In many states, fewer than a dozen drivers have been cited for the violation of the law. This is puzzling because every day thousands of drivers send or receive texts while driving.

One part of the problem is that many laws are "secondary offense" laws, meaning that you cannot be pulled over for texting unless you violate a primary offense law (such as speeding or running a red light). These secondary offense laws are "feel good" laws that have no teeth.

Another part of the problem is that laws that attempt to regulate driver distraction are not always rigorously enforced. Some have claimed that it is difficult to discern when a driver is texting...

However, the impairments to a driver when they text are so obvious that you can spot an impaired driver a mile away. When I drive with my teenage sons, they have no trouble identifying drivers who are texting. I have no doubt that skilled law enforcement officers can do a better job than my teenage sons. But it does beg the question: "Why are more tickets not issued?".

In the end, for text messaging laws to be effective, they need to be as stringently enforced as drunk driving laws.

(Thanks to Wendy W. for suggesting a post on this topic)
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