"The driver was probably on his phone."
These two sentences come from an exchange between my wife and I last spring, as we drove eastbound into Boston beneath an overpass of the Massachusetts Turnpike (the 'Pike, as we Massholes call it), where a city bus had crashed through the guardrail and was teetering 50 feet or so above the westbound side of the highway.
As it turned out, my wife was mistaken in assuming the bus driver had been using his phone during the crash. The driver was a woman, not a man, who'd barreled through the protective fencing while reportedly using her phone. (The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority [MBTA] later terminated the driver, citing her phone use while driving as the reason.)
Not a day passes in which I do not see some driver do something stupid, and more often than not the fools are on their cell phones. Sometimes, it's minor — a busy soccer mom on her way to a practice in the new family Range Rover who switches lanes without looking — other times it's not—a 20-ton bus nearly plunges five or more stories onto a busy interstate. Either way, it's painfully clear that in-car texting and cell phone use, whether hands-free or not, are a major societal issue in the United States that simply do not receive due attention.
I'm no conservative technophobe, either. I've made a career of studying and writing about mobile technology. I'm as addicted to my smartphones as the next guy. In fact, I carry at least two phones at all times, so I may even be doubly addicted. But enough is enough.
Here's how the U.S. government defines distracted driving:
"Any activity that could divert a person's attention away from the primary task of driving. All distractions endanger driver, passenger, and bystander safety."
Which activities sit atop the list of common driver distractions? "Texting," and "using a cell phone or smartphone."
Punishment doesn't match potential consequences
The question how to properly regulate in-car phone use is a complex one. Most, if not all, of us do it sometimes, right? It's OK when we do it, but not so much for the teenager in the beat-up Honda Civic in front of us who is so engrossed in conversation he doesn't see the light turn green.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention count motor vehicle accidents among the leading causes of death in America. On any given day, approximately 660,000 America drivers use cell phones or manipulate electronic devices while driving, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And the U.S. government's website on distracted driving says 3,154 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2013, and approximately 424,000 people were injured.
All of the U.S. states are at least trying to reduce the risk associated with driving while talking or texting. In fact, 14 states (as well as Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) already ban handheld use in automobiles while driving (but not hands-free), and 46 states (and the previously mentioned territories) have outlawed texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
No single state bans all cell phone use for all drivers, but 38 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use by novice drivers, and 20 states and D.C. prohibit it for school bus drivers. It's still likely legal for your city bus driver to chat while working — though they may lose their jobs if they crash through a fence on a highway overpass.
The punishments for distracted driving vary by state, and by the age of the driver, and some are "primary" (an officer can cite a driver for the offense alone) while others are "secondary" (there must be another cause for a traffic stop). Across the board, however, the punishments are relatively minor when compared to the potential consequences of serious accident, including bodily injury, even death.
Change in distracted-driving regulation requires change of public perception
Until we as a society change the general perception that driving while talking on the phone is safe enough when done correctly, we're only perpetuating the problem, and postponing the inevitable. Studies demonstrate that hands-free cell phone use is not substantially safer than handset use in cars, because it's not about the device, it's about the distraction. But many people will argue to the contrary. The fact that it's perfectly legal to talk on the phone while driving in the majority of states (36 to be exact) as long as you use a handset-free device suggests that government leaders are under this impression — or at least the laws reflect the misunderstanding.
Just a few decades ago, intelligent health-conscious people sat in restaurants, in bars and movie theaters, and in airplanes, while their peers smoked cigarette after cigarette, and they breathed in potentially lethal secondhand smoke. Today, we know better. If you want to smoke cigarettes, by all means, smoke 'em if you got 'em. This is America, and you should be able to do what you please to your own body. But don't expect to smoke in my home, or my car, because I know secondhand smoke is dangerous. And don't put me and mine in danger on the road because you can't put down your mobile device while driving.
In a few decades, I'd be surprised if people do not see the idea of using phones while driving in a similar light. It took time to convince lawmakers that banning smoking in public place was the right thing to do to — some states still don't. And it will take time for the laws regarding in-car phone use to evolve, as well.
However, I see no reason whatsoever to use my phones while I drive, especially as newer cars integrate more music and navigation controls. I honestly believe there will be a time when young people look to their parents, aunts, grandfathers, whatever, and say with wonder, "You guys seriously used to drive and talk on your phones at the same time? That's just crazy."