Warning: Danger Zone

Despite the ban of texting and driving, people still value their social lives more than their safety

It is illegal to text and drive in the state of Illinois. That does not stop citizens or Olivet students from committing this crime, however. Photo by Krista Skelton

By Cathy Schutt

A billboard with the message Rest Area = Text Area stands facing Interstate 57. But although the words are loud and bold, some drivers are too consumed with the tiny screens of their phones to notice, worried that a quick glance at the road may cost them precious time that they could be using to text their boyfriend, grandma or BFF.

On Jan. 1, 2010, Illinois lawmakers passed a law to prohibit texting while driving.

Public Act 096-0130 of the Illinois General Assembly states, “A person may not operate a motor vehicle on a roadway while using an electronic communication device to compose, send or read an electronic message,” adding that “‘Electronic message’ includes, but is not limited to electronic mail, a text message, an instant message, or a command or request to access an Internet site.”

While 75 percent of American teenagers ages 12 to 17 own a cell phone, 66 percent use their phones to send or receive text messages, according to the study “Teens and Distracted Driving” by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in 2009. Additionally, 48 percent of teens said that they have been in a car when the driver was texting.

Studies have found that people who text while driving present more of a hazard on the road than those who drive under the influence of alcohol.

A July 2004 study cites the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, claiming that “any time during the day, 11 percent of drivers [are] likely to be using cell phones.”

The study concluded that cell-phone drivers “exhibited greater impairment” than drunk drivers. Researchers used a simulator to test the effect of using a cell phone while driving compared to driving under the influence of alcohol. The study found that cell-phone drivers had slower reaction times when braking the car, which caused more traffic accidents than when they were not on their phones. The study also found that having a conversation on a cell phone distracts the driver more than other distractions in the car, including talking to other passengers. Additionally, using a hands-free phone instead of a hand-held phone did not improve a driver’s ability to focus on the road.

More than half of all American drivers say they feel less safe on the roads than they did five years earlier, according to the 2010 Traffic Safety Culture Index Report. Of the study’s 2,000 respondents, 26 percent cite general cell phone use as a cause of their unease, and 12p percent specifically mention text messaging. However, 24 percent of those surveyed also admit to texting or emailing while driving.

Despite the danger that technology presents to drivers, the number of fatalities caused by traffic accidents is actually decreasing, according to an article posted on MSNBC’s website on June 18, 2010.

The federal government announced in March 2010 that the occurrence of highway deaths fell nearly 9 percent from 2009. The fatality rate was the lowest since the government began tracking the data in 1966. However, the article claims a poor economy may be the main cause, as fewer people are currently driving.

Although texting while driving is a hazard on the road, some young people cannot resist doing it.

Erin Blucker, a senior at Olivet Nazarene University, admits that she is guilty of texting behind the wheel. Although she tried to stop for about a week, Blucker says she could not break the habit.

“At this point, I [text while driving] but I try to be extremely aware of my surroundings while I text,” she says. “Maybe it’s hypocritical, maybe it’s unsafe, but I guess most people who text while driving – including myself – think that they can manage it.”

Sophomore Kaitlin Loos confesses that she texts while driving, but only on streets that are not highly populated with vehicles.

“Occasionally I’ll text when I’m on a back or country road [near] my house,” she says.

Other students do avoid breaking this law.

Junior Greg Hoekstra says he typically does not text while driving, simply because “it’s illegal.” However, he does not condemn those who do.

“I think it’s OK for people to use their phones while driving, because people are crazy drivers no matter what.”

Chelsea Winn, who graduated from Olivet in December of 2010, says she doesn’t text and drive because she lacks the ability to multitask.

“I’m not coordinated enough,” she admits good-naturedly. “I have enough of a problem texting and walking at the same time.”

Although the texting ban has been in effect for over a year, it does not seem to be enforced.

Interim Bourbonnais police Chief Greg Kunce says he is “not aware of a single citation” that the department has handed out since the law took effect. However, he admits violations of this law are “more common than we are able to determine at this point.”

Kunce says an officer can pull over a driver with “probable cause,” or reasonable suspicion that a crime is occurring. He said that if a person is guilty of texting while driving, an officer could issue a fine of $120.

Brian Woodworth is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work and Criminal Justice at Olivet Nazarene University and a certified lawyer in the state of Michigan. He earned his Juris Doctorate, or legal degree, from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1999 and spent four years dealing with traffic cases before returning to his alma mater, Olivet.

Woodworth asserts that the cost for texting while driving can go beyond a mere citation.

“When you have a violation on the road of the vehicle code, that gives police automatic probable cause. Almost all vehicle codes are written that allow for an officer to arrest you for violation.”

However, he claims that most officers would rather issue a citation than arrest a traffic violator.

“Too much paperwork involved,” he explains matter-of-factly.

Woodworth believes that current college students text because they think they are “invincible.”

“Especially since you’ve just been released from 18 years of prison with your parents – who’ve been telling you that you’re doing things wrong the whole time – you have a mindset that ‘I can do it,’ ‘I can do it my way,’ and ‘I can do it right.’”

Woodworth adds that, although he somewhat agrees with that perspective, “there’s a reason they make laws.” Enough people have been injured from texting while driving that a law was necessary to keep people safe, he says.

In spite of the risks, teenagers and college students are still pushing buttons, worried that silencing their phones during a quick drive to Wal-Mart will destroy a relationship or make Grandma mad. And since local police officers are not issuing citations, they have no intention of stopping.

So is a billboard with Rest Area = Text Area really going to make people put down their phones? A more appropriate message may be Warning: Danger Zone.

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