Broken Law: Texting While Driving in North Carolina

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texting while driving

Photo: Associated Press

Mutually Assured Dismissal

There was a segment on the local news last week that caught our attention. Generally all you have to do to make our ears perk up is mention cars or driving, but sometimes the topic of conversation doesn’t excite us in the way we think it will. This particular story had to do with texting and driving, a practice that is illegal in this state, or at least it’s supposed to be. WRAL reported on how difficult it can be to enforce that law, and we think it’s a discussion worth continuing.

We can start by looking at some numbers. A study by Forbes Business says that 47 percent of adults admit to texting while driving, and it estimates that 58 percent of high school seniors do the same. Furthermore, the National Safety Council says that 1.6 million accidents per year – nearly 25% of all automotive accidents – are a result of texting while driving. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis attributes more than 300,000 injuries and 3000 deaths each year to the practice.

In 2013 in Wake County, 1458 citations were issued to drivers who were pulled over for texting behind the wheel. In 2012, approximately 1150 citations were issued, and in 2011, fewer than 900 drivers were ticketed. You can interpret this trend in two ways: Either the police are issuing more citations than they were previously or more people are texting while they drive.

State prosecutors hope the rising number of tickets will raise awareness for a dangerous and unlawful act, and that it will inspire drivers to put their phones down while behind the wheel. It doesn’t seem like that message is getting across, though. Of the 1458 citations issued last year and mentioned above, 1367 of those cases were thrown out – half of them because the drivers paid the prescribed fine and the other half because drivers fought the charges and won.

Narrow and Shallow

This is the full text of the North Carolina state law banning vehicular texting:

§ 20-137.4A. Unlawful use of mobile telephone for text messaging or electronic mail.

(a) Offense. – It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a vehicle on a public street or highway or public vehicular area while using a mobile telephone to:
(1) Manually enter multiple letters or text in the device as a means of communicating with another person; or
(2) Read any electronic mail or text message transmitted to the device or stored within the device, provided that this prohibition shall not apply to any name or number stored in the device nor to any caller identification information.

(a1) Motor Carrier Offense. – It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a commercial motor vehicle subject to Part 390 or 392 of Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations on a public street or highway or public vehicular area while using a mobile telephone or other electronic device in violation of those Parts. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to prohibit the use of hands-free technology.

(b) Exceptions. – The provisions of this section shall not apply to:
(1) The operator of a vehicle that is lawfully parked or stopped.
(2) Any of the following while in the performance of their official duties: a law enforcement officer; a member of a fire department; or the operator of a public or private ambulance.
(3) The use of factory-installed or aftermarket global positioning systems (GPS) or wireless communications devices used to transmit or receive data as part of a digital dispatch system.
(4) The use of voice operated technology.

(c) Penalty. – A violation of this section while operating a school bus, as defined in G.S. 20-137.4(a)(4), shall be a Class 2 misdemeanor and shall be punishable by a fine of not less than one hundred dollars ($100.00). Any other violation of this section shall be an infraction and shall be punishable by a fine of one hundred dollars ($100.00) and the costs of court.

No drivers license points or insurance surcharge shall be assessed as a result of a violation of this section. Failure to comply with the provisions of this section shall not constitute negligence per se or contributory negligence per se by the operator in any action for the recovery of damages arising out of the operation, ownership, or maintenance of a vehicle. (2009-135, s. 2; 2012-78, s. 9.)

As you can see, the scope of the law is surprisingly narrow. Only drivers who “manually enter multiple letters” into their phone for a text message or email are considered to be in offense. Looking at a GPS app is not against the law. Looking up a contact or entering a phone number is not against the law. Texting or emailing while your vehicle is stopped – such as at a stoplight or stop sign – is not against the law.

The penalties are similarly shallow. A fine and court costs are the only real consequences. It’s counted as a simple traffic infraction (unless you’re driving a school bus in which case it’s a Class 2 misdemeanor. Drivers who are cited don’t even get a point on their license. A recent bill proposed to double the fines required, but it never made it out of committee.

As an important note, in NC all cell phone usage is prohibited for drivers under the age of 18 unless it is to a parent or in the event of an emergency. Now reconsider the 58 percent of high school seniors who drive and text as a second nature from above and also add in the 11 teen deaths per day that result from texting while driving as reported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

For a measure that is supposed to be a deterrent, it is difficult for the state to do more than inconvenience those who are caught. The only way for police officers and defense attorneys to prove beyond reasonable doubt that someone was texting would be to acquire a search warrant for that person’s phone. This is why so many people are able to contest their tickets and win – the state can’t build a strong enough case against them. The rest just pay their fines because they usually only total about $290 after court fees are added in. You could say then that the state hasn’t built a strong enough case against texting while driving.

Facing Our Fears

It’s clear that existing provisions are not enough to deter or prevent people from texting while driving, which invariably means more people are going to get hurt. We can’t just abide by that outcome – any casualties are too many when the circumstances are preventable. While there’s little we can do with one blog post, we can start a discussion here and on social media.

So let’s open the floor and ask some questions.

Do you text while driving? This is a safe place to admit to doing so, and it’s a statistical likelihood that you do, same as a coin flip. We can say that we have done it, usually because we were replying to an incoming message. There’s always that brief moment of resistance where we know it’s not a good thing to be doing, but the urge to respond is often overwhelming. We can say that we’ll usually wait to come to a stop, hoping for a red light, and we didn’t even know that it was legal to text at a red light until we did the research. Still, they never seem to last as long as you think, and invariably we might still be texting as we take our foot off the break.

Again, this all happens after only the briefest notion that we are disregarding a law, and that notion shouldn’t be so brief. It begs the question of why we do this in the first place. Where does that urge to text come from? Has the culture of texting become so demanding? We said before that we text because of an urge to respond, and part of that comes from wanting to meet the expectations of the person who texted you first.

We’ve gotten to the point where we expect instant gratification and instant returns on the smallest investments, even a forty-character message typed into our smartphones. Unconsciously, you recognize that expectation in others, so when you get a message that says “What’s up?” you don’t want to receive a follow up “Hello?” and then the dreaded “…” when you don’t respond in the five minutes it takes you to get home. So you put some more distance between you and the car in front of you, reduce your speed, and start to thumb out a reply. That’s how you can get rear-ended, or worse, that’s how you miss the ball rolling out into the street and what comes following after it.

One of the funniest and most thoughtful people of our generation, Louis C.K., thinks we text while driving because we’re afraid of being alone.

As part of a larger tirade against smartphones in general (and specifically giving them to our children at too young an age), he says that we have lost our ability to just be a person. We can’t sit and exist for moments at a time without fishing our phones out of our pockets and checking Twitter or Facebook or firing off a quick string of texts to ten different people. There’s this fear, born of the limitless connectivity of the wireless age, that conditions us against being cut off, not even for the span of a twenty-minute commute.

This is a more psychological discussion than we’re used to hosting, but it’s all said in the name of finding some answers. If we can root out what makes people want to text behind the wheel to begin with, we might be able to more effectively dissuade them from doing so going forward.

The Search for a Solution

If the risk of hurting other people isn’t enough by itself to stop people from engaging in a harmful practice, the state should step in and criminalize the behavior. Our state, along with forty others and the District of Columbia, has done so, but the current law is insufficient and unenforceable. People shrug off their tickets and go back to texting.

In its overview of Distracted Driving, the IIHS says that though bans on texting while driving are increasingly common, no evidence exists that they reduce crashes. It may be that none of the laws passed in this country have the teeth needed to make an impact.

The United Kingdom’s Association of Chief Police Officers recently took the drastic step of advising all law enforcement officials to confiscate the phones of anyone involved in a traffic accident. Should our state consider taking a measure that is equally as drastic, or is there a median that can be agreed upon? We don’t have an answer, but we’re curious to hear what you think.

This issue is one that concerns all members of the Leith Cars family, for we are committed to the safety of everyone in our community. We hope you’ll share this post and broaden the discussion of an important matter that affects all of us.

Broken Law: Texting While Driving in North Carolina was last modified: December 23rd, 2014 by Chris Leith Dodge