A leading road safety group, the Governors Highway Safety Association, has reversed field and announced its support for state laws banning drivers from sending and receiving text messages. The move is a welcome response to growing evidence that texting creates a greater risk of crashing than even drunken driving.
Studies suggest that drivers who send or receive a text message tend to take their eyes off the road for about five seconds, enough time for a vehicle going at highway speed to travel more than 100 yards. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that truckers sending text messages are 23 times more likely to cause a crash or near-crash than a nontexting trucker.
Texting car drivers, according to a University of Utah study using a driving simulator, are eight times more likely to crash. But fewer than 20 states prohibit texting while driving. And some of those statutes, like New York’s new law, impose minor fines and a negligible enforcement scheme that allows police officers to penalize a driver for the offense only if stopped for another infraction, such as a broken taillight or speeding.
While stronger state laws are essential, texting at the wheel is a national hazard that calls for a firm federal response. One answer would be to condition federal highway money on state compliance with reasonable safety standards. This has helped produce stronger laws against drunken driving.
A promising Senate bill — the Alert Drivers Act of 2009 — would do exactly that. It would require states to adopt federally set minimum penalties for texting while driving or forfeit 25 percent of highway financing. States would have two years to comply and could recover lost funds once they passed acceptable laws. A companion bill has been introduced in the House.The need to crack down on this dangerous practice is abundantly clear.