Police Chief Shows Why Texting, Driving Don't Mix

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It's almost too easy. Federal Way, Wash. Police Chief Brian Wilson rear-ended a car at an intersection when he was checking his BlackBerry. He received a reprimand (consistent with department policy when officers are in collisions that cause less than $700 in damage) and has apologized to his community. Federal Way is a city of about 90,000 south of Seattle.

No word on whether Chief Wilson was fined $101 as provided by Washington state law against texting when driving. It's considered a "secondary infraction" -- violators are written up only in conjunction with another infraction (such as causing an accident?).

The police chief, who said he was checking news headlines at a traffic light, is certainly embarrassed, but his experience does dramatize the danger of texting while driving. Washington was the first state to ban it (back in 2007; the state didn't require hands-free cell phone use while driving for another six months). Of course, texting and talking on cell phones in ways that impair driving could always be cited as part of a broader prohibition on any distractions that impede safe driving. (If you end up in an accident, that's pretty much proof that the other activity was an impediment). The engineer in the Metrolink accident in Southern California last fall was apparently texting shortly before the collison.

I was surprised to learn that few jurisdictions are really cracking down on texting while driving. New Jersey followed Washington and imposes a $100 fine; following were Louisiana, Minnesota, and Alaska. California banned it last year, but fines violators only $20 for the first offense and $50 thereafter. In New York, Nassau and Suffox counties banned texting while driving. Some states (Indiana, Rhode Island, Massachusetts) specifically target drivers under age 18. More are in the works.

A May 2008 study by insurance company Nationwide found technology provides roughly half of the distractions while driving; also, about half of the drivers surveyed also said they've been hit or nearly hit by someone using a cell phone behind the wheel. Still, 81 percent of drivers say they've talked on their cell phones while driving, and 18 percent admitted texting while driving. Of the 18- to 30-year-old drivers, 89 percent talk and 39 percent text.

It's a rare driver who hasn't done something distracting while driving and gotten away with it, but that doesn't mean it's safe. It also doesn't mean you'll get caught; for something like texting or chatting on a cell phone (hands free or not), it's probably not the law that will stop you. I've been remembering something I heard years ago in traffic school (yep, the Saturday time-sink that keeps a speeding ticket secret from your insurance company): For most of us, driving is the most dangerous thing we do all day. Outside of sky-divers or pilots or firefighters or cops or some other dangerous professions, getting behind the wheel of a vehicle that weighs thousands of pounds and travels 60 miles per hour is probably the most dangerous thing we do; we probably ought to focus.

Go ahead and crack the obvious jokes about Chief Wilson; but I think he offers us all a cheap reminder of what we already know.

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