Texting And Driving Bans May Make Roads Less Safe

A Massachusetts judge imposed the maximum sentence on a teen driver who was texting when they caused an accident that killed a pedestrian. It's part of a growing effort in a few states to bring tougher charges and impose harsher sentences for texting while driving.

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In Massachusetts, an 18-year-old was convicted yesterday of causing a fatal traffic accident by texting. He will spend a year in jail, and the judge said he hoped the sentence would serve as a deterrent. Today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood weighed in, calling for a state and federal crackdown on cellphone use in the driver's seat.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports on the debate over whether strict new laws actually work.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Thirty-nine states have rushed in recent years to pass bans on texting while driving like the one used to convict the Massachusetts teenager. Secretary LaHood says the remaining states should hurry up and follow suit. And he announced a $2.5 million grant to beef up enforcement.

SECRETARY RAY LAHOOD: When people are not distracted, lives will be saved. There's no dispute. There's no debate about whether distracted driving causes injury and takes peoples lives. We know that it does.

SMITH: But there is dispute about whether any law can actually get drivers to put down their phones.

RUSS RADER: These laws are well-meaning. But unfortunately, so far, we don't see that they're effective in reducing crashes, which is the goal that we all have.

SMITH: Russ Rader is with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which does research for insurers. He says laws can even backfire as drivers try to hide their phones lower down in their lap. Also, he says cellphone bans can only do so much since cellphones are only a small fraction of what distracts drivers.

RADER: Distracted driving is as old as driving. And whether it's putting on lipstick, or reading the newspaper, or reaching into the backseat for the MP3 player, all those things are distracting. So focusing on phone use will have limited effect on reducing crashes.

SMITH: But others point to successes in states like California, where cellphone bans are most strictly enforced. Barbara Harsha, head of the Governors Highway Safety Administration, says she hopes the grants announced today will help police get more aggressive.

BARBARA HARSHA: People have to believe that they'll be caught and the laws alone are not going to change behavior.

SMITH: Still, Harsha concedes the current trend of passing new laws may be what's most easy, but not what's most effective.

HARSHA: It's the low hanging fruit.

SMITH: A better answer, Harsha says, may be technology. New phones, for example, could be made to automatically lock when moving at high speeds. Or, as Rader from the Insurance Institute says, vehicles can detect obstacles and automatically brake even when a driver is not paying attention.

RADER: Systems like that are constantly monitoring the road ahead, and they're never distracted by a phone call or by the kids. They're always on alert.

SMITH: There is also a third piece of the effort to curb texting behind the wheel. In addition to technology and the courts, there's the court of public opinion.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please stop. Stop the texting and driving...

SMITH: Emotions like those on display from the victim's girlfriend in the Massachusetts case may ultimately be what reaches drivers and persuades them to put down their phones. As she put it yesterday, if not for the law, then do it because we're all in this together.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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