Texting while driving is illegal and unsafe. Why is it the norm?

By Jonathan Purtle

Texting while driving, texting while walking, texting while biking—I must admit I’ve done it all, even though I know it’s a dangerous and dumb thing to do. And I’m not alone. At this very moment, looking out my office window, I can count four drivers texting, checking e-mail, or surfing the web on their phones as their vehicles roll down 15th Street.

Just because everyone is doing something doesn’t mean it’s okay (texting is estimated to have been responsible for 16,000 traffic fatalities between 2001 and 2007). It does mean, however, that it’s harder to get people stop doing it—even when they know it’s dangerous. How can states prevent texting while driving when it’s generally accepted as the norm?

Making it illegal is one obvious option. As described in a previous post, an increasing number of states have banned texting behind the wheel. New Jersey has one; Pennsylvania's new ban took effect in March. These laws, however, are difficult to enforce and may not immediately result in behavior change.

Results from a survey published in Traffic Injury Prevention found little difference in rates of texting while driving between states with and without laws that prohibited the behavior. Twelve percent of drivers in states with texting bans reported texting while driving compared to 14 percent of drivers in states without bans. For drivers ages 18-24, the difference was 45 percent vs. 48 percent.

Making people more knowledgeable about the risks is another option. A survey of 348 college-age drivers found that 92 percent reported reading, 81 percent reported replying, and 70 percent reported initiating texts while driving. Nevertheless, the respondents said they believed that that texting while driving was dangerous. When asked to rate how dangerous on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely) respondents reported an average of 5.28 for initiating a text while driving, 5.28 for replying, and 4.63 for reading. Knowledge of risk alone often is not enough for people to change their behavior when social norms condone it.

Making a moral appeal to stop texting while driving is another option. This approach was effectively used several decades ago by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Under the leadership of Candy Lightner, MADD’s founder and the mother of a child who was killed by a drunk driver, the organization morally condemned drunk driving—changing social norms around the behavior and prompting the passage of more stringent drunk-driving laws throughout the United States.

So how can we change the culture around texting and driving, and ultimately get people not to do it? For one, laws can indeed shape social norms. While texting bans may not be terribly effective in changing behavior today, they hold promise to gradually stigmatize it over time. Laws that include a moral component could also be effective.

Last month, for example, a committee in the New Jersey Legislature approved a measure that would add using a non-hands-free cell phone while driving to the list of behaviors that are considered “reckless.” If the measure passes, it would allow individuals who kill or injury someone while talking/texting and driving to be charged with vehicular homicide or vehicular assault—bringing penalties more in line with those for drunk driving.

Driving drunk and driving while texting are not the same thing. But as people come to realize that both behaviors can cause serious injury and death to others—as well as to the drivers— social norms are likely to shift and behaviors are likely to change. I for one vow to forever change my texting-while-driving practices. Not because it’s illegal, not because I know it puts my life at risk, but because the prospect of causing serious harm to someone else as a result would be a moral burden to heavy to bear.

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