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Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014
Columnists

Jackson: ‘Intextication’ ban won’t fix anything

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Around lunchtime Friday, Interstate 75 traffic pushing toward State Road 56 was reduced to its usual lurching clot. While most of the trapped accepted their inconvenience, acutely impatient motorists were weaving from gap to gap and lane to lane, apparently in hopes of beating fate.

Accordingly, I was not astonished when, several cars ahead in the right lane, a black Subaru station wagon with a Florida tag drifted across the center line.

Oddly, though, once it got there, it stayed for a while, refusing to commit to a new course and instead merely straddling the middle. A few seconds later, the wagon retreated to its original position. OK, maybe the driver was simply scouting the road ahead.

Another handful of seconds passed and here came the wagon again, except this time there was no space between cars in the left lane for it to slide into. I know this because by now I had caught up, and the trespassing Subaru endangered the right side of my as-yet unblemished 60th birthday present.

I also can report identifying, through the driver’s open window, the source of the car’s erratic, menacing behavior: The motorist, a fellow in his mid-30s with straight dark hair and a week-old beard, had his left hand gripping the steering wheel while his right, propped at the 12 o’clock position, clutched a smartphone.

Both thumbs worked the screen, his gaze fixed on his typing. And as he thumbed away, he drifted, immune even to the blaring objection from my car’s horn while my left tires rumbled on the warning strip that tells you you’re leaving the road.

At our coagulated speeds, this episode of texting-while-driving threatened no life or limb, only property damage and some unpleasantness with insurance companies.

I would like to say this close encounter brought me closer to a settled conclusion regarding a solution to one of the great plagues on modern life, a social ill trendy enough to have acquired a catch phrase: Driving while intexticated. I would like to say it has, but, alas, it has not.

Based on its coming-attractions buzz, making texting while driving illegal looks like a sure winner. It seems a reasonable response to a substantial and growing problem, and it has enormously popular support: Roughly 95 percent of Floridians favored a ban in a recent survey by the University of Florida.

While generally supportive of enhancements to motorist attentiveness, I do not share Sen. Nancy Detert’s (R-Venice) faith in changing behavior by passing laws. I mean, 95 percent of us favor penalties for intexticated driving. Do 95 percent of us also refrain from the practice, which we know can be fatal, or are we waiting for instructions from Tallahassee?

Detert, the ban’s longtime sponsor, suggests the latter: “A parent will be able to tell their teenager, ‘Do not text and drive, it’s against the law.’” Evidently, some legislators do not hold their constituents’ parenting skills in high esteem.

Granted, prohibition would be one more implement in the child-rearing tool chest, but when it comes to encouraging — better yet, demanding (“Text behind the wheel and your keys, cell phone and butt are mine”) — wise and healthy choices, parents who defer authority to, well, the authorities wind up being denied Big Gulps, real butter and standard-capacity firearms magazines. As they should.

But suppose, Detert’s weak justification notwithstanding, bans work. That would be something, right? Well. A study in the April issue of “The American Economic Journal: Applied Economics” provides thin support.

Drawing data from 33 states with some form of ban, authors Rahi Abouk and Scott Adams discovered brief improvements — three months is the norm — in single-car crashes, but only in states where texting covers all drivers, not just minors, and is a primary offense. (Florida’s Legislature is considering a ban as a secondary offense, punishable only in conjunction with a front-line violation, such as speeding or reckless driving.)

Meanwhile, in states with bans — particularly states that don’t outlaw all handheld use behind the wheel, something Florida’s legislators are not considering — troopers routinely report enforcement is nearly impossible. How do they know the suspect is texting (illegal) and not dialing (legal)?

There’s also this: Anecdotal evidence suggests bans don’t prevent intextication; devotees simply do it in their laps where cops can’t see, taking their eyes off the road even more, and longer, than before.

Sure, I resent the Subaru driver for putting his digital correspondence above the safety of those around him. And I wish passing a law would fix things.

I’m just not counting on it. After all, “John Carter” looked great in the previews, too.


tjackson@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

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