Posted Jul 1st 2012 4:00PM
Last week in Ohio, the U.S. state Senate made a move that promises to be a very competitive entry in this year's "Demonstrate How Laws Are Basically Just Wishes" contest. They passed an anti-texting bill that will make all texting while driving illegal. That's nothing new - they'll be the 38th state to do that, if it passes. It's the bill's other provision that would make Ohio different - the one that says drivers under the age of 18 cannot use any electronic devices whatsoever. Not for calling, not for texting, not for status updating, not for anything. This is a total ban on device use for kids under 18 and an across-the-board ban on texting for everyone.
Well, it's an across-the-board ban on texting except that it does not include built-in voice recognition texting systems that play incoming messages out loud and send messages that users dictate. Why does it specifically exclude those? Perhaps because the Ford Motor Company, which has a huge assembly plant and six manufacturing plants in Ohio, said "please." Just putting that out there.
Read more after the jump.
Asked what inspired it, the bill's sponsor U.S. Senator Tom Patton said "I've got six kids."
Now clearly, if you could do something that would keep people in general, and please-for-the-love-of-God, teenagers, from doing other things while driving besides driving, that would be a worthy thing to do. And if that would be too broad a law, then sure, make it focus on fun gadgets that flash and beep and entice you to take your eyes off the road. There's always one guy in the back insisting that if you're going to try to ban texting or phone usage then you also have to ban tacos, mascara and compelling conversation, but we are not going to be that guy.
We're going to be the other annoying guy, the one who says: wait, how is this going to work again? One thing in favour of a more comprehensive ban on devices: it removes a lot of grey area. A common criticism of anti-texting laws is that drivers could simply claim they'd been dialing their phones or putting an address in their GPS. Which may sound ludicrous, as it's basically saying, "No, officer, I wasn't doing the dangerous and idiotic thing you thought I was doing. I was doing a different dangerous and idiotic thing." But when you're trying to enforce an anti-texting law, it matters.
Ohio is going to have some trouble with the 18 and under ban, though, because of the way they've structured it. If you're 18 or older, texting will be a secondary offence in Ohio - meaning you can be charged with it if you've been stopped on some other violation, such as speeding. But if you're 16 or 17 in the state, you can be pulled over just for texting. So? Ohio Police officers will be expected to be able to tell before pulling someone over if they're 16 or 17 as opposed to 18 or 19? They could just pull everyone over who looks vaguely young and texty, but that seems like casting an awfully wide net to find a few irresponsible minnows.
It's not as though no one's put any thought into how to enforce bans like these. The U.S. National Highway and Transportation Safety Board (NHTSA) did a several month study last year in which they actually had intervention communities and control communities and attempted to measure the effectiveness of anti-texting techniques. What they found made sense: that legal bans on texting and other types of device use have little effect on their own, but that their effectiveness is significantly enhanced if there's a widespread public information campaign and specifically targeted police patrols aimed at texting. In other words, there has to be a decent budget supporting that ban. The bill passed by the Ohio Senate has no funding in it whatsoever.
As always in discussions like these, there are people piping up talking about software you can use that makes phones and other devices unusable if they're in a vehicle moving more than 8 kilometres per hour (5 mph). Yes, yes, great idea and all that. But no one's figured out yet how to keep it from disabling passengers' phones. And since no legislature anywhere has even come close to considering outlawing all device usage in a car by anyone, it's a moot point.
The other issue is that programs like this aren't meant so much to stop people from texting as to deter people. In order to do that, penalties have to be harsh and immediately and publicly enforced. As passed by the Senate, the Ohio ban won't be enforced at all for six months after being passed; instead, people will be issued a warning and told about the new law. After that, adults in Ohio who are charged with texting after having been charged with something else will received USD$150 fines; it goes up for second and third offenses. Ohio Teenagers caught using a device won't be fined at all, but they'll lose their licence for 60 days.
Are these penalties harsh enough? That's hard to say, because that hasn't been specifically studied with regard to texting. But studies on penalties for drunk driving and reckless driving suggest that they have to be pretty harsh before they have much deterrent effect on people who have never been charged. Tom "Six Is Enough" Patton says he thinks that just making it illegal will make people less likely to do it.
I would respectfully suggest that, if his public policy strategies truly are inspired by his parenting, he really needs to think it through just a bit more. Any parent knows that there is nothing more damaging to discipline than setting a rule, then making it clear you don't care enough about it to make sure it's followed. In terms of behavior change, it's worse than never bringing it up at all. If you say "Good night, kids, I want you in by eleven, now I'm putting on my sleep mask and popping a few Ambien," what they're hearing is "You should really stay out all night, then push the car into the driveway so I don't hear you come in at five. If I do catch you, just act really bizarre so I think I'm dreaming."
It may be true that for some few law-conscious teenagers, just the fact that using a device is illegal will keep them from doing it - but they likely were never the ones we needed to worry about anyway. The rest will contrast the extremeness of the law with the lackadaisical enforcement and conclude: I can probably get away with this. And they'll be right.
News Source: Evergeek