Washington State's TWD: Texting While Driving

Five states have now passed legislation that limits cell-phone use while driving. And now Washington state has gone even further by banning texting while driving, too. The new law is more about principle than action.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

And I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Okay. Be honest. When was the last time you got lost driving and called a friend on your cell phone to get directions? Or dialed your spouse to give a heads up that you were stuck in traffic? Five states have passed legislation banning calls on hand-held cell phones while driving. Now, Washington State has gone one step further. It has passed the first explicit ban on text messaging while driving.

Chana Joffe-walt reports.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: When she starts driving, Jen Diamond(ph) in Seattle first has to get to the right radio station.

(Soundbite of radio)

JOFFE-WALT: Then directions.

(Soundbite of GPS)

Unidentified Man: Your entire route is now shown. Continue to follow...

JOFFE-WALT: Then, her four-year-old Elijah(ph) has requests from the back seat - lots of them.

ELIJAH (Jen Diamond's Son): I want to listen to Beastie Boys now.

(Soundbite of GPS)

Unidentified Man: Take the next left turn.

JOFFE-WALT: Then recovering the grapes from Elijah who is now dropping them on the floor. There are also toys rolling up under Jen's feet, and of course the never-ending pounding in her back.

Ms. JEN DIAMOND (Resident, Seattle, Washington): You're kicking my chair, Eli(ph).

JOFFE-WALT: And then...

(Soundbite of cell-phone ring)

JOFFE-WALT: ...a text message from her partner - close to home. Jen texts back five minutes. And then...

(Soundbite of siren)

JOFFE-WALT: Actually, that last part didn't really happened - but it could when the text-messaging ban in Washington State goes into effect, January 1st, 2008. But everything that did happen - the DJing, GPSing and beating the kids - all still legal. Although, Jen's parenting magazine does make her feel guilty for it.

Ms. DIAMOND: One of our magazines that we got said we shouldn't do anything other than drive while you're driving, but nobody does that.

JOFFE-WALT: Really? No one just pays attention to driving? I jumped out of Jen's pimped-out mom van and into Linda Stone's(ph) BMW to find out.

So, we're on the highway.

Ms. LINDA STONE (Resident, Seattle, Washington): Okay.

JOFFE-WALT: Let's see what people are doing.

Ms. STONE: We're in spy mode and you're our spy leader.

JOFFE-WALT: My spy follower, Linda Stone, is an ex-software executive who is now a tech consultant writing a book about attention.

At first, we only see minor offences. A girl doing her hair, some guy eating chips, but then we hit traffic and the criminals come out of the woodwork.

Ms. STONE: That woman is text messaging. Right there. She is.

JOFFE-WALT: In the Honda.

Ms. STONE: She's totally stopped and text messaging.

JOFFE-WALT: And looking down on her lap.

Okay, okay. I know that's bad. But I'm going to play the role of a rule-obsessed five-year-old here for a minute and ask the obvious. What about the guy we just saw reading the paper, how come that's not banned? Or the woman we see flossing her teeth? The closed-eye singing or the tons of people we see eating? There are hundreds of things we do in our car that are potentially dangerous distractions.

But Linda Stone says the ban on text messaging is symbolic. She says it represents a larger a push to do one thing at a time.

Ms. STONE: We are looking at different ways to protect our time. You see the signs all around of people caring more about protection and quality of life.

JOFFE-WALT: Signs like how everyone and their mom does yoga nowadays. And literal signs that say no cell phones in restaurant or even some stores. Stone says the text ban is part of finally declaring enough is enough.

Ms. STONE: I think that if someone had tried to legislate this - even five years ago - there's no way that they would have been able to pass this bill. And I think that it's because people are so ready to start making changes.

JOFFE-WALT: For those of you in Washington State who are not ready to start making changes, very soon there will be a $101 ticket waiting for you. And violators, just so you know, in traffic, yes, you can tell.

Ms. STONE: She's text-messaging - she's doing e-mail. Oh, my gosh. She is so not eyes on the road. She is so eyes on her BlackBerry. Now hiding it because she knows we see her.

JOFFE-WALT: For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-walt in Seattle.

She thinks you're undercover.

Ms. STONE: I am.

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