I’m a teenager. I’m driving. I feel a burning desire to text, because I need to know if Bridget is going out with me tonight. Since I’m headed up the Major Deegan Expressway in New York, I’ve been seeing all these “don’t text and drive” signs, which helpfully add that a “Texting Zone” (also known as a rest stop) is a few miles ahead. But, well, I gotta reach Bridget now. What’s the harm in one little text?
Quite a lot, actually. As Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) pointed out on Monday at a highway-side press conference, “One in five accidents today is attributable to distracted driving, and there are five times more fatalities than for drunk driving.” Cuomo announced that the state has put up 300 signs in strategic locations warning against texting while driving, and has designated 90 rest areas where you can pull over and do whatever you want on your cell phone.
Cuomo has an 18-year-old daughter, and he quotes her as saying she needs to know whatever it is “right now.” He tells her “five minutes really won’t make a difference. It can wait, it really can.”
That’s eminently reasonable and logical, and good parenting on Cuomo’s part, but does the teenage brain really work that way? Sensibly gauging risk is an issue especially for 16-year-old first-time drivers. “By late adolescence, say 17 years old and after, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and long-term perspective taking is thought to help them rein in some of the behavior they were tempted by in middle adolescence.” For more on this, check out The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, by Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard.
Perhaps more of a deterrent for at least some young texters is the enforcement effort Cuomo put in place. It can be expensive, not to mention threaten your driver's license. The fines went up this summer, to $50 for first offenses, and up to $400 for repeated ones. Cuomo put fleets of unmarked SUVs on the highway looking for cell phone miscreants. This summer, tickets were up 365 percent over last summer, with some 21,580 issued (compared to 5,208 last year). The crackdown period ended with Labor Day. Four times as many of the citations (16,027) this year were for merely talking on the phone, as compared to texting (5,553).
If you think you’re invincible, and accidents happen to other people, you’re not going to wait for the Texting Zone, alas. But we’re not going to do much about the developing teen brain, so Cuomo’s effort should be roundly applauded, and imitated by other states. It won’t help in every case, but it will help some. Here's Cuomo, on video, at the podium in New York: