In September 2008, Jennifer Smith suffered a tragic loss. Her mother, Linda Doyle, out running errands for a local charity, had been killed in a car accident. The young man who hit her had been on the phone, ran a light that afterward he didn’t even recall seeing, and broadsided Mrs. Doyle’s car at almost 50 mph. The investigating officer saw that there weren’t any signs of braking preceding the collision. This young man had a clean driving record, and with one bad decision, he had decimated a family. This terrible accident spurred Ms. Smith to join other families who had lost loved ones to distracted driving accidents in their campaign to fight this problem.
Texting and driving is a problem that has been a long-time issue for public safety advocates. Referred to as a “menace,” the fight against cell phone use and driving has proven to be an uphill battle. Millions of drivers use cell phones which makes it a difficult issue to tackle. The results of a 2007 Harris Interactive poll showed that 66% of the people that responded said that they had texted while driving. The irony of this is that 89% of those same people agreed that cell phone use while drving ought to be banned. In 2009, Car and Driver tested a driver that was legally intoxicated against a driver using a cell phone. At the end of the test, the driver using the cell phone performed worse than the drunk driver. Also in 2009, a study by Virginia Tech showed that sending and receiving text messages while driving is 17 times as perilous than simply talking on the phone while driving These numbers show that that cell phone use and driving are a dangerous combination.
Another facet of the texting and driving issue is lax enforcement of existing laws. Many states, including Michigan, have clearly stated texting laws. Michigan’s statute reads “Reading, typing, or sending text message on wireless 2-way communication device prohibited; use of hand-held mobile telephone prohibited; exceptions; “use a hand-held mobile telephone” defined; violation as civil infraction; fine; local ordinances superseded.” Despite these states having laws on the books, there has been no decrease in the number of accidents. This is because even when people are pulled over and ticketed, the fines are basically inconsequential. In Michigan, for example, as defined in Section 257.602b of Michigan Vehicle Code Act 300 of 1949, a first offense cost $100 and the cost is only $200 for subsequent infractions.
Supporters of cell phone use question the number of accidents and deaths caused by cell phone use and driving. While the number of people owning a cell phone has skyrocketed into the millions, the number of vehicle accidents deaths per year in the US has stayed around 40,000. The number of crashes has not increased either.
A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study “estimated that 6 percent of drivers at any time are on the phone.” With millions of drivers overestimating their ability to multitask behind the wheel, texing and driving will continue to be a widespread crisis. To back this up, studies have shown that the reaction time of someone texting and driving is no better than the reaction time of a driver who is legally intoxicated. For 98% of these multitasking drivers, the chances of an accident increase by four times. Switching to a hands-free set up makes people think that they are not distracted because they are not physically looking at a phone. Studies by the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Laboratory have shown that this is still a false sense of safety. The brain scans show suppressed brain activity while a driver was using a headset while on the phone.
Texting and driving are a behavior that cannot continue. It will claim lives needlessly and tear apart families like that of David Teater, senior director of transportation strategic initiatives at the National Safety Council, who lost his 12-year-old son in a car accident caused by a driver on their phone. The solution to this problem lies in serious, consistent enforcement of laws. In 2014, the Department of Transportation in two northeast cities set out to see if this theory would make a difference. In 2015, at the end of the year-long pilot program, a significant decrease in the use of hand-held phones while driving was reported. Hartford CT had a 56% decrease and a 38% decrease in Syracuse, NY. Hartford, CT had a 68% decrease in incidences of texting while driving. Syracuse, NY had a 42% decrease in incidences of texting while driving. These compelling numbers were the result of public service announcements combined with officers making it a point to watch out for drivers using their cell phones. The numbers themselves are a persuasive argument for the rest of the US to get on board with these two cities and continue the fight against unnecessary deaths due to phone use while driving. Jennifer Smith would want it that way.
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