If you’ve ever wondered if people will ever learn to stop texting while driving, the answer is, yes, they will, but sadly it’s going to take some time. And it won’t be a law specifically against it that will ensure cooperation, but rather something that’s sometimes more powerful: social acceptance.
Two words provide a historical comparison: Seat belts.
We value our freedom, sometimes to a fault. And as seat belts began to be installed in more and more car makes in the 1960s, people who drove for years without them debated their usefulness in saving lives, just as we debate whether looking at or tapping a text message is all that dangerous.
It’s sad — because so many lives continued to be lost because at first too many people wouldn’t wear seat belts — and strange to our ears to recall those old arguments today. Then, people said they felt “confined” by seat belts. They would complain about how they “wrinkle my clothing” and so on.
Today such talk is widely believed to be something your grandparents would have said.
On Nov. 15 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its annual report on seat belt usage. According to a summary on its website (nhtsa.gov), 2012 seat belt use in the U.S. was 86 percent, up 2 percentage points from 2011. Here in the West, where talk of individual freedom and suspicion of government intrusion tends to be higher, the report said 94 percent of drivers and passengers buckle up, leading all other regions of the country, all of which were between 80 and 85 percent.
The report noted that 32 states and the District of Columbia have primary laws requiring seat belts, meaning police can pull you over simply for not wearing one, while 17 states have secondary seat belt laws, meaning police can cite you for violation if they observe you violating another law as well.
Someone could argue that it’s the law that has us all buckling up, and for some ultra-mindful folks, being law-abiding is their first concern. The rest of us? It’s just unconscious. We buckle up because we’ve become personally convinced that with seat belts we have a significantly greater chance of surviving an accident, period. The thought, “Whoa, I could pay a small fine if a cop catches me beltless,” doesn’t cross most minds. “This is a good idea because there are crazies out there,” is what does. Sometimes, too, the more honest among us will think that it’s possible we ourselves might cause an accident, and that belt will be there protecting us in that situation as well.
With texting while driving, of course, not only are the crazies doing it, too often so is the person who looks back at us in our rear-view mirrors.
Substitute “I only look at my phone for a couple of seconds” with “Seat belts wrinkle my clothing” and it’s 1965 all over again. Of course the things that distract people today include so much behavior while driving that distracted drivers then: Eating, shaving, applying makeup, reaching on the floor or even — yikes — the back seat for items or scolding children. All taking no more than a few seconds, just as text messages do.
Hannah Mitchell wrote last week for the Tribune that East Valley law enforcement officials are still trying to figure out how to deal with the issue. Mitchell also referenced how a state Senate committee turned down an amendment that would have created as specific prohibition of texting while driving, and cited a report from The Associated Press reporting that Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said during debate that current state law already bans reckless driving for any and all reasons, obviating the need for a new law.
Some folks — particularly those who have lost loved ones — will always and understandably believe that only a new law will be the key motivator for people to avoid the tragedies that affected them. Neither this nor any other expression of opinion is likely to convince such people who have suffered so much.
Texting while driving is serious. Mitchell quoted a NHTSA study showing that someone who is texting while driving is impaired as much as a driver who has consumed four beers.
Equally serious is driving without seat belts. Yet seat belt laws were on the books for a long time before their use became commonplace. Ultimately, it wasn’t the laws, but the growing and overwhelming public acceptance of them that made the difference between buckling up and not.
Unfortunately, this example of reality about American social behavior is going to result in needless injury and death on the way toward 94 percent of us freedom-loving Westerners to consistently refuse to text and drive.
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on weekends. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.