State lawmakers would have you believe they're doing something pretty spectacular by passing a ban texting while driving. Are they? We don't know. The problem is there's no data that show that a ban on texting actually decreases accidents. We also don't know whether a lack of a ban increases the number of accidents.
According to the Idaho Transportation Department, there were about 25,000 accident statewide in 1999. Ten years later, amid the increase in cell phone use, texting and GPS devices, the number of accidents in Idaho has remained constant at about 25,000 per year. That's while there's been a significant number of new cars registered in the state and new drivers licenses issued.
If you ask the transportation department staff to tell you how many vehicle crashes were caused by texting while driving, cell phone use, kids in the backseat or anything else, they can't. The reason is that's not data that's collected right now. The department can tell you that about 20 percent of accidents in 2008 were caused by inattention or distraction, but of that how many accidents were caused by people fiddling with their cell phones, trying to send a text message or updating their Facebook statuses at 55 miles an hour? And how many were caused by people trying to eat lunch or tune the radio? We just don't know. However, says the transportation department, the state will soon start gathering that data.
But lawmakers aren't willing to wait. A bill before the state Senate would clearly say that it's a crime in Idaho to be texting while driving. Texting, under the draft new statute, means "engaging in the review of or manual preparation and transmission of written communication via wireless devices" except when that's being done by law enforcement personnel. The bill passed the Senate Transportation Committee on a unanimous vote.
Such a statute raises a legitimate enforcement question. How can a police officer tell that the driver of a vehicle is texting? An officer would have to be able to see into a vehicle and know what's going on below the horizon of the car window -- from across the road or down the street.
I've asked several police officers to explain to me how they'd enforce this law, and the answer is they can't.
"It's unenforceable," one officer told me flat out. Unless officers pull someone over and observe a driver texting as they approach the vehicle, or the person admits to texting, it's going to be awfully difficult for officers to enforce the statute, he said. Seeing a phone in the passenger seat or in the driver's lap proves nothing. Officers publically say that a texting ban is a "tool in the toolbox" to keep the traveling public safe, but apart from that, no one really knows how it will work or if it will work.
Were the Legislature to wait until after the transportation department has quantifiable information, we might be able to know if such a ban were needed, and if so, whether the law actually had an impact or not.