DAVID WEBBER: It’s a traffic jungle out there
Daily driving has gotten tougher over the past decade or two. More round-abouts to contend with, J-turns on Highway 63, U-turns confusion at any time, more bicyclists on the streets, sitting behind texting drivers waiting to turn left at a busy intersection and the light turns amber. Here in Columbia, the City Council will soon consider an ordinance to ban texting while driving by all drivers, not just those under 21 or commercial drivers as is the current ordinance. This is a necessary, but insufficient, to make Columbia’s roads safer and less stressful.
Forty-seven states ban texting while driving, all but five have primary enforcement, allowing officers to issue a citation when they see a driver texting regardless of other infractions. Missouri is not one of them, choosing instead to ban texting for drivers under 21.
In the Midwest, driving is essential to most people’s lives. For some, it is joy and escape, for others it is stress and anxiety. As the population grows so do the number of registered vehicles to nearly 270 million. Increased economic development may mean more jobs, but it also means more vehicles with more drivers. More of these drivers have cell phones, some use them while driving despite knowing it is not a wise social practice. We may have smartphones but we have a lot of not so many smart drivers. The American fatality rate is 40 percent higher than Canada and Australia. Americans still drive too fast and too many still resist seat belts.
With two decades worth of data, the facts support prohibiting cell use while driving. One insurance company estimated that in 2010 more than two-thirds of drivers use cell phones. A California Highway patrol study found that about 10 percent of drivers are using cell phones at any time. The National Highway Safety Administration reports that more than 3,000 fatalities in 2015 were due to distracted driving. That’s about 10 percent of all traffic fatalities.
Individuals who drive while sending or reading text messages are 23 more times likely to be involved in a car crash than other drivers. A crash typically happens within an average of three seconds after a driver is distracted.
Modern information technology can be tools for solving the problems it created. Two websites are useful for discouraging texting while driving. Itcanwait.com offers a pledge that you, the driver, will put your phone down while driving. The site also provides educational materials including a realistic simulation demonstrating the impact of distracted driving. DriveSafe.ly is a mobile application that reads text messages and emails aloud in real time and automatically responds without drivers touching their cellphone.
My own informal observation of local drivers is that a lot more than 10 percent use cellphones while driving. My eyes see that closer to 25 percent of drivers who pass through Stadium and Broadway are actively using a cellphone and that at least that many have a cellphone on the seat or console ready to go, if needed. There has been an epidemic of cellphone users and it is not limited to drivers 21 and under. In fact, I would venture that 21 and under drivers are probably no riskier than are older drivers.
The chief consequence of text while driving is distracted driving. Despite our desire to make it so, multi-tasking is a myth. The brain cannot not competently handle many tasks at once. A distraction is interrupted thought. Failure to see an object or another vehicle is a textbook example of distracted driving.
Driving patterns have changed over the past decade — most likely due to cellphones. Failure to signal, delayed passage through left hand-turns and four-way stops, and hogging the left lane are widespread driving practices due to cellphones. It is common practice, i.e. more than half, for vehicles leaving the University hospital or the MU sports complex via Stadium towards the Mall to go immediately into the left lane and stay there until they exit at Broadway, the mall or I-70. They prefer the left lane because it gives them more flexibility while checking their cellphone.
Running on city streets has become more hazardous as well. Running in the bike lane toward traffic is dangerous because of the vehicles that straddle the bike lane so the driver has a buffer on both sides. Similarly, running in subdivisions is dangerous due to the vehicles turning right at a stop sign without ever looking for oncoming runners or pedestrians.
Regulating distracting driving presents several challenges, including deciding between “primary” and “secondary’ enforcement and deciding how much surveillance is appropriate. Designating distracting driving as an illegal driving behavior is a deterrent in itself. Most citizens prefer to comply with the law. A local ordinance will serve as a little nudge to cause drivers to do what they know they should do, i.e. put down their phones and drive more safely.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.