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Our Opinion: Distracted driving calls for education, not more citations

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North Carolina already bans texting and driving. Now state lawmakers want to prohibit all handheld use of smartphones and tablet computers behind the wheel.

House Bill 144, the Hands-Free N.C. Act, seeks to reduce distracted driving dangers by creating the new traffic infraction of unlawful use of a wireless communication device. The bipartisan legislation has four primary sponsors and 42 co-sponsors and seems like one of those feel-good public safety bills destined to find its way to the governor’s desk.

While cellphone use does cause and contribute to crashes, HB 144 would continue a piecemeal approach to regulating distracted driving that focuses on symptoms rather than causes. It may or may not make roads safer, but with graduated penalties of $100, $150 and $200 for repeat offenders, it’s guaranteed to shake down motorists and raise revenue by arbitrarily deeming some driver distractions worse than others.

Through a spokesman, House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, told the Johnstonian News earlier this month that he had concerns about enforcement, affordability, safety and business impact and wasn’t ready to endorse the bill. Other lawmakers should join him in critically evaluating this legislation.

HB 144 would make it unlawful to operate a motor vehicle with a wireless communication device in drivers’ hands or on their bodies — no resting that phone in your lap. Making and receiving phone calls would be OK as long as drivers can use voice-activated technology. All modern smartphones have hands-free calling features, and most new cars have Bluetooth software that allows drivers to place phone calls and listen through the car’s speakers. Siri, the digital assistant on Apple’s popular iPhone, will compose and send text messages entirely by voice.

This technology is great, but it’s far from universal. Not everyone can afford a late-model car with Bluetooth wireless integration, and not all cellphones are voice-activated smartphones. Is allowing hands-free technology and forbidding handheld phone use a form of discrimination against poorer and less tech-savvy drivers?

Cellphone use is a common driver distraction, but it’s far from the only one. How about eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading and adjusting radio, CD and digital music players? Those aren’t our examples, by the way. They’re all listed in an N.C. Department of Administration safety newsletter published in April 2016.

A Cabinet-level agency warns government employees against eating behind the wheel, but neither the governor nor legislators have felt the need to call for a statewide ban on the behavior. Food for thought.

The list of potential driver distractions is endless. In February 2017, state Rep. Garland Pierce filed a short-lived bill to outlaw driving with a live animal in your lap. Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat, is also a co-sponsor of the Hands-Free N.C. Act. It’s laudable that he wants to make drivers safer, but how many laws will it take to criminalize every conceivable risk?

The 2019 North Carolina Driver’s Manual — the Division of Motor Vehicles handbook new drivers use to study for their road tests — includes nearly a full page of warnings against drowsy driving, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates may cause up to 6,000 crashes a year. Yet no lawmakers have filed bills seeking to crack down on the chronically tired.

Instead of declaring some driver distractions crimes based on little more than emotion, the General Assembly should work to attack the problem at its root by improving driver education curriculum, beefing up the DMV handbook and including distracted driving questions on written driver tests. Could education and voluntary compliance work as well as prosecution?

In truth, most motorists multitask behind the wheel — just ask a parent shuttling kids off to school and sports practices while running errands. Government should encourage drivers to consider their precious cargo and reduce distractions to the greatest extent possible. But crimes and traffic infractions must be reserved for behavior that causes genuine harm to people and property.

Instead of writing tickets for every risk that could contribute to theoretical future crashes, authorities should weigh distractions as aggravating factors that result in steep consequences when they actually cause wrecks.

If the goal is really deterrence rather than soaking motorists for cash fines and court costs, wouldn’t charge enhancements for distracted driving crashes serve the same prevention purpose as a ban on handheld cellphone use?

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