Texting While Driving: R U a Real Idiot? Part Two of Two

In my previous post on this subject, I wrote about how bad the incidence of texting and driving has become– as well as cell phone use when driving – in Massachusetts and New England.  Here I’ll discuss what’s being done in other states, and what might be done here to more aggressively tackle this change-resistant problem.

Presently, forty-six states in the U.S. have enacted laws against texting while driving.  Almost all of those states also prohibit sending or reading email, or otherwise using the phone.   Unfortunately, in Florida, texting is a secondary offense, which means that even if a police officer sees a driver texting, the officer can’t stop that driver unless another violation is observed, such as speeding.

Despite all these efforts, police and motor vehicle safety advocates will tell you that the problem is only growing worse.  The predictable result?  Thousands of serious injuries and deaths, across the country.  As a Boston texting and driving lawyer, I see horrific injuries, scars, burns, paralysis and even deaths that inevitably follow.

Some examples of just how brazen many drivers can be on this issue:

  • From a state trooper: “We saw one driver who had two phones going at one time — one in his left hand and one in his right hand, with his wrist on the steering wheel.”
  • From West Bridgewater Police Chief Victor Flaherty: “We’ve seen cars in trees. We’ve had two houses hit within three weeks. We …stopped one car and …100 yards later it hit a parking lot [because the driver started texting again.]”
  • From a Route 128-area police officer: “I caught a teenager playing Pokemon Go on his phone while driving. I stopped one woman who was wathing Youtube.”

What do we do about this problem?  As a Massachusetts motor vehicle offenses lawyer, I advocate two responses:  1) Legislation to increase the current penalties; and 2)  A public education campaign to drive home the insanity of this ‘practice.’  In my previous post, I discussed how difficult it can be for police to prove that someone was texting or using their cell phone for another reason:  Officers don’t have objective, electronic proof of the violation, such as lidar and radar do for speeding, and breathalyzers do for drinking and driving.

New York state may have developed a solution.  Some legislators there proposed that police cruisers be equipped with a new device called the (appropriately) the “Textalyzer.”   Police investigating a crash could use the device to scan the driver’s phone for any activity use immediately preceding the crash. The proposal has not yet been formally voted on, and will doubtless be objected to as an unlawful search.   But if the search of the cell phone could somehow be limited to activity on the phone just immediately prior to the collision, – perhaps a maximum of five minutes and no more – it would without doubt be worth a try.  New York state also has a law that puts texting offenses onto a drivers’ DMV driver records, which leads to higher points on their driving records, and higher insurance rates.  That approach should be adopted by Massachusetts and other states, as well.

Fines for texting while driving in Massachusetts range from $100 for a first offense, $250 for second offense, and $500 for a third offense.   In my view as a Massachusetts injury attorney who sees far more of the terrible consequences of this problem than he wished to, I think we need to get far more serious about this problem, and fast.

Some states, such as Louisiana, have increased the fine for first-time offenders from $175 to up to $500. I think that the Massachusetts Legislature should consider this.  Which would you prefer:  Knowing that “the other driver” on the road – or you as well, could be fined $500.00 for texting while driving, or be horrifically deformed in a Massachusetts car accident?  Or perhaps paralyzed?  Or perhaps killed?  Or perhaps have a loved one killed? Quick:  Which prospect is worse?

Jay Winsten, who directs the Center for Health Communication at Harvard’s School of Public Health, is developing a major media campaign against distracted driving. The center created a very successful campaign to combat drunken driving.

ATT Mobility has also waged a very laudable awareness campaign called “It Can Wait.”  Hopefully, we’ll see change in public behavior soon.