Tuesday, August 11, 2009

New Anti-Texting Law Will Do Little To Keep Illinois Cyclists And Pedestrians Safe

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has signed a new law that bans texting while operating a motor vehicle. The complete statute can be read here. The law will take effect on January 1, 2010. It is a good thing, I suppose. It helps create awareness of this dangerous activity. At the risk of seeming cynical, however, I do not expect this law to change much. Illinois motorists were always exposing themselves to potential liability for causing an accident because they were operating a mini-typewriter while driving rather than watching the road. With the new law, the police can start issuing tickets. But it is going to be awfully difficult for officers to catch people texting and driving. Just keep the phone in your lap and you'll never get caught. Also, the new law has some significant gaps. First, it does not prohibit the use of "a global positioning system or navigation system or a device that is physically or electronically integrated into the motor vehicle" while driving. So motorists can still screw around with the little computer monitors built into their cars to find directions, locate the nearest Thai restaurant or search their 300 or so XM satellite radio stations without violating the Act. Secondly, the law allows a driver to use "an electronic communication device in hands-free or voice-activated mode" to send messages or access the internet. If you access the internet with your voice -- which anyone with the Google App on their iPhone can do-- will you not then look at it, diverting your attention from the road. Is it merely the use of the motorist's thumb for a non-driving purpose that the statute seeks to prohibit? If so, here is a simple way around the Act for those who do not have voice activation capability on their phones:

Thirdly, the law does not apply to police officers and operators of emergency vehicles. Unless they have received Jedi training, police officers and ambulance drivers are no better at driving while not watching the road than anyone else.

The new law does no harm, I guess. But I'm disinclined to get terribly exciting about it. It seems like a bone -- one without any meat -- thrown to bicyclists and pedestrians who are at most risk from texting, emailing, sports score checking, XM surfing, navigation fiddling drivers. What I would like to see is a public ad campaign with billboards, radio and television spots that addresses the danger posed by texting and driving. Make people aware of the horrible consequences that can be caused by not paying attention to the roadway. Also, let's not mess with the civil justice system. In my view, making sure drivers understand that they will be held liable for any injury or damage caused by their conduct offers a better disincentive to negligent driving than does the remote possibility that a cop will issue a ticket.

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