Texting while driving: a passionate defense of the new ban

Today, a ban against texting while driving takes effect in Colorado -- not that Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle expects it to have an enormous impact. In widely quoted comments, he called the measure a "feel good" law that would be tough to enforce.

State representative Claire Levy, a Boulder Democrat who co-authored the bill, begs to differ. "When confronted with the difficulty of enforcement, should we say, 'Never mind -- go ahead and text, because we can't stop you'?" she asks. "Or should we say, 'This is really dangerous. It's causing accidents and loss of life. So let's pass a law and hope that the combination of enforcement and people's good judgment will be effective'?"

Levy believes the challenges of catching drivers in the act of texting have been overstated.

"I think in many cases, and perhaps in most cases, it will be quite obvious when somebody is texting when they're driving," she maintains. "Now, in some cases, it will be difficult to determine whether someone was texting or dialing or not doing anything at all. But really, that's not much different than trying to figure out whether somebody's driving with a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent without stopping them unless they're doing something obviously wrong.

"There are a lot of traffic laws we have that are somewhat difficult to enforce or are only enforced if a law-enforcement officer just happens to see a person at exactly the right time. But the point is, we know text-messaging while driving is extremely dangerous, and it shouldn't be allowed."

Levy is similarly frustrated when critics of the texting ban dismiss it as "an example of intrusive, nanny-state legislation" -- which she sees as entirely wrongheaded.

In her opinion, "people are being remarkably myopic on this issue. They're going into a defensive posture because it suggests something they're doing personally is very dangerous -- and that's not something people are comfortable admitting.

"When people talk about nanny-state legislation, they're usually talking about well-intentioned legislation telling people what they should or shouldn't do in their personal lives -- like, 'Don't eat so much trans-fat,' or even, 'You should be wearing a seat belt.' Tanning beds are a classic example of that.

"But texting while driving is a behavior that's widely engaged in that's not just dangerous to the person doing it. It's also dangerous to other people. If the only consequence of using your cell phone and texting is that the texter would get injured, I might not care about it. But they're sharing the road with a lot of other people, and that makes it a perfectly legitimate area of legislation. I have no concerns about what people do in their personal lives as long as it doesn't endanger other people. And this does."

Of course, many people believe talking on handheld cellphones presents similar problems -- and Levy confirms that if she had her druthers, that, too, would be against the law. However, she says, "I'm realistic enough to know that I need to maybe wait a year before I try again on that.

"People are slow to accept change," she continues, "and I think the tricky thing about legislating in this area is almost every single legislator personally feels the effect of this particular law, unlike many of the other laws we pass, that just apply to other people. It really makes this a more sensitive issue, and I think the folks down here at the Capitol need to come to terms with the fact that what they're doing every day really isn't safe -- and get comfortable with reining themselves in."

She's hopeful the success of the texting ban could positively impact future handheld cellphone legislation. In the meantime, though, she wants law-enforcement types to legitimately try to enforce the texting ban, rather than writing it off as unworkable.

"I'm not sure when we decided that when you're being the wheel of a vehicle weighing a couple of tons, you get to make a personal choice about doing something that's dangerous to other people," she says. "But it's not simply a personal choice when it's putting other drivers at risk."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts