Americans like to be on the go, and they like to be connected. Alas, the two have combined for deadly consequences on our nation’s highways, as reported earlier this month in an Associated Press story.
Police agencies are grappling with motorists who text while they drive. Our logical side tells us when barreling down the highway at 70 mph, it’s ill-advised — idiotic, actually — to take one’s eyes off the road for several seconds to respond to a text with an “LOL” or something longer. But that is exactly what is happening, with predictably fatal results.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports the number of deaths attributed to cellphone distraction rose from 406 in 2014 to 476 in 2015 — and safety advocates say the number is probably higher. We are not immune in our corner of the country.
Between 2008-15, the number of texting citations issued annually by the Washington State Patrol jumped from 118 to more than 2,000. In 2014, a survey of 600 Washington residents by Seattle-based PEMCO Insurance found that just over 10 percent of respondents admitted to texting while driving regularly — if that many confess to behavior that is known to be illegal, one can imagine that more people actually are doing this dangerous combination.
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How much of a danger? Studies show that texting while driving increases the accident risk by 23 times and is like having a blood alcohol level of 0.19 percent, more than double the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Which leads us to muse: If texting while driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence, shouldn’t the penalties be just as severe?
Washington law calls for a fine of $124 for first-time texting-while-driving offense. Meanwhile, a first offender arrested for driving under the influence faces an automatic license suspension, and a court conviction leads to a suspended license for at least 90 days, with penalties increasing with subsequent offenses.
Stronger laws and continuous public-relations campaigns have driven home the message about driving under the influence; it’s still a serious problem, but the general public has a far better understanding of its perils.
One can argue that texting while driving calls for similar steps: stronger penalties and a concerted campaign that drives home the driving danger.