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Jackson: What's next when texting ban fails?

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Published:   |   Updated: May 6, 2013 at 12:45 PM

So, the Legislature at last has moved to ban texting while driving. File this one under “They did what they had to do … I guess.”

I mean, nearly everyone wanted lawmakers to make “intexticating” illegal. Here's the funny thing about that: The Venn diagram showing motorists opposed to texting while driving and those who practice it at least occasionally would be two virtually indistinguishable circles, one laid upon the other.

So, banning intextication, apparently, is a lot like one of the arguments for Prohibition. Dear government: We can't help ourselves from doing this dangerous thing. Please save us from ourselves by making it illegal.

We want to be clear: Sending text messages from behind the wheel is a reckless, intolerable practice, selfish in the extreme, and lawmakers are not wrong to attempt to ban it.

But as is so often the case in Tallahassee, worthwhile intentions got kneecapped by legislators' timidity. Every worthwhile study about “intexticating” — texting while driving — finds the best remedy comes from banning motorists' use of handheld devices altogether.

Right. Like that ever was going to pass in a Legislature where a significant number of members buy the nonsensical notion that traffic signal cameras should be banned because they violate drivers' privacy rights. What part of “public thoroughfare” do they not understand?

Anyway, those same studies indicate making intexticating a primary offense — that is, motorists can be stopped if texting is the only thing they're doing wrong — is barely a serviceable second option.

Instead, Florida's law — assuming Gov. Rick Scott signs it — mimics the watery versions that have proved almost unenforceable and irrelevant elsewhere. That is, it's a secondary offense, an add-on for texting drivers who have committed a stop-on-sight violation, such as speeding, careless driving or making an illegal turn.

As noted here last month, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee economists Rahi Abouk and Scott Adams found plenty of reasons to rethink the whole idea of bans on texting while driving.

Their three-year (2007-2010) study, published in April's “American Economic Journal: Applied Economics,” found states with “weak” bans, such as Florida's, experienced no significant improvement in single-car, single-occupant fatal crashes. (For the sake of their study, the authors assumed if bans worked, single/single accident stats would be those most likely affected.)

But even in states with “strong” bans (texting is universally banned and is a primary offense) which logged an 8 percent reduction, the effect was short-lived. Alas, after just four months fatalities had rebounded to previous levels, prompting Abouk and Adams to conclude the slump was almost entirely associated with the announcement of the ban taking effect, and not the ban itself.

Among the difficulties police, deputies and state troopers are soon to experience is the nightmare written into the statute. How are they supposed to distinguish between texting (illegal) and dialing (legal)? And unless they're investigating an accident involving injuries or death, they won't have access to the user's account timeline. Good luck making a texting charge stick.

Republican Sen. Joe Negron, of Stuart, the only “no” vote in a 39-1 landslide, cited similar reservations. “How does an officer know if you have your BlackBerry and you're not just looking at what your next appointment is? I'm very opposed to texting while driving ... but the problem with this is enforceability.”

As Eric Jaffe wrote in theatlanticcities.com, “making texting a 'secondary' violation is about as good as not banning it at all.” Moreover, “even states that make texting a 'primary' offense must maintain heightened enforcement to sustain the benefits of the law.”

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.

So, Scott willing, we have a ban, one editorialists and other columnists across the state claimed was so blindingly imperative it scarcely merited debate. But if the available evidence repeats itself here, and Florida's first stab at eradicating texting while driving flops, what then?

Incrementalism, baby. The wing-tip is in the door. Next round: Texting gets promoted to primary offense status on our way to an all-out prohibition on handhelds behind the wheel.

Anybody who isn't perfectly OK with that understands, now, a little of what gun-rights advocates fear from universal background checks. Strange bedfellows, anyone?


tjackson@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1851

https://www.facebook.com/#!/TomJacksonTribune

@tjacksonTBO

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