Robert F. Bukaty/AP
A driver uses a cell phone in Freeport, Maine, in September. Maine and more than a dozen other states have implemented laws to curb distracted-driving practices such as texting or talking on cell phones while operating a car.
A driver uses a cell phone in Freeport, Maine, in September. Maine and more than a dozen other states have implemented laws to curb distracted-driving practices such as texting or talking on cell phones while operating a car. Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Just a few years after most people sent their first text message, texting while driving is already banned in 19 states.
This swift public policy action banning talking or texting on mobile phones while driving is in stark contrast to what happened in the 1970s when people tried to get the public to take drunk driving seriously, says Chuck Hurley, the chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD.
"It was literally a joke on late-night television," Hurley recalls. "It was normal behavior; it was how people got home."
Hurley ran the National Safety Council in the 1970s, and he spent most of the Carter administration feeling like he was banging his head against the wall trying to get people to take drunk driving seriously.
A Victim's Story
And then, he says, people heard the story of one victim named Cari Lightner. The 13-year-old California girl was killed by a drunk driver in 1980. Her mother, Candy Lightner, started MADD to raise awareness about drunk driving. There was even a TV movie starring Mariette Hartley as Candy Lightner.
"It really electrified the country both in terms of public policy and in terms of morality," says Hurley about MADD and the publicity it generated. "It really became immoral to drink and drive."
He says changing attitudes about distracted driving might take something more. Most people don't think of texting or talking while driving as harmful activities. Hurley says changing public perceptions might require another activist like Candy Lightner.
Jennifer Smith wants to be that leader. Just last fall her mother, Linda, was killed by a driver who was on his cell phone at the time. Smith says she looked for a grief counseling group to join, something like MADD. When she didn't find one, she realized that she was the right person to start it. Her brand-new group is called Focus Driven: Advocates for Cell-Free Driving.
"My mom's story was the perfect example," she says. "It was such a cut-and-dried case. [The driver] was on the phone for less than a minute. He was only driving for a quarter of a mile. He just didn't see the light."
Replacing Statistics With Stories
Smith says MADD was successful because it kept telling stories that replaced statistics with real people. So Smith has been telling her story as much as she can. She'll be on an upcoming episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show with the young man who killed her mother. She's also telling her story to lawmakers, alongside the family members of other victims.
"We do have to make it illegal," Smith says. "That's going to be the big thing with people. [People think] it may be wrong, but it's still legal, so it can't be that wrong."
She's not going to have an easy job. Americans love their cell phones, and distracted driving is still late-night joke fodder. Recently 19-year-old pop star Taylor Swift spoofed public service announcements about texting and driving on Saturday Night Live.
It's the kind of thing that exasperates Priscilla Natkins of the Ad Council. She recently developed a public service campaign targeting teen drivers and their cell phones.
"If you have credible sources saying it's not that much of a problem, it makes our challenge that much more considerable," Natkins says.
Rather than telling kids to stop texting or get off the phone while driving, Natkins' campaign asks them to remind their friends not to do it.
She says that people will only really change their behavior while they are driving if they're afraid of hurting others. It may be personal guilt — as much as legal guilt — that ends up saving lives.