Texting zones as the new solution to distracted driving

New Yorkers may still be slurping down Big Gulp sodas, but even if elected officials can’t battle diabetes and cavities, they say they can make residents across the state safer on the road with the creation of new “texting zones.”

New York state officials announced this week they will begin installing 91 texting zones along major highways to encourage drivers to pull off the road and stop the car before they whip out their smartphones. The texting zones will be tacked onto state rest stops, altering drivers with signs that read “It can wait: Text stop five miles.”

Since the texting zones won’t require any infrastructure and are basically re-branded rest stops, they are more of a public service message than public works project — lots of big blue signs along the highway to get the message out.

New York penalties for texting while driving are a $150 fine and five points on a driver’s license for the first offense, $200 for the second and $400 for a third. Fines in California for texting while driving start at $159 with subsequent tickets at $279, according to the Office of Traffic Safety. Across the country, texting-while-driving penalties vary wildly from state to state and range from $20 to $10,000, according to a study by Edmunds.com.

New York’s new texting stops is the latest effort by a local government to curb the growing rate of auto accidents caused by texting. Despite widespread campaigns against texting while driving, most people still overestimate their ability to multitask and continue to fiddle with their phones while behind the wheel. Texting has become quicker and easier over the last few years through technology innovation such as voice recognition, predictive texting, swyping and the ever-growing dictionary of texting abbreviations, but any texting is a distraction.

California was one of the earliest states to tackle the issue, passing in 2009 a ban on texting while driving. (Washington state was the first in 2008.) But despite efforts to limit our smartphone addictions while behind the wheel, texting while driving is actually more popular in California since being outlawed. A study by the AAA of California found that texting while driving has more than doubled among drivers since the 2009 ban. About 3.4 percent of Californians text while drive, compared to 1.5 percent before the law, according to the AAA study, which looked at drivers’ texting habits from June 2008 to June 2013.

And despite this trend, California enacted last year a law that allows anyone behind the wheel to receive and send a text message as long as they are using a fully voice-operated, hands-free operation. The new law was met with criticism from drivers and transportation safety authorities concerned about distracted driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 5,474 people were killed and an estimated 448,000 were injured in 2009 in accidents that involved distracted driving — about 16 percent of all traffic deaths.

The National Safety Council estimates that the risk of crashing increases between 8 to 23 times when the driver is texting. The council reports that 25% of crashes in 2008, or 1.4 million crashes, were due to cell phone use and an additional 3% of crashes were caused specifically by text messaging. And cell phones have become a lot more prevalent since 2008 — especially among young drivers.

Maybe Google needs to hurry up to those self-driving cars, so we can all just focus on texting in our vehicles, and leave the driving to someone, or something, less distracted than us.

Image from Marin Independent Journal, March 2013

Heather Somerville Heather Somerville (248 Posts)

Heather Somerville is a business reporter covering venture capital and startups for the Bay Area News Group.