While the volume of young adult’s texting while driving isn’t a great surprise, recent reports on the numbers of self-admitted texting while driving remain surprising. Over 50% of young adults admit to having sent an email or text message in the last 30 days, with about a quarter reporting doing so “regularly” or “fairly often”. This doesn’t account for the prevalence of other risky behaviors, such as talking on your cell phone or doing other web-based tasks while driving.
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These self-reported numbers are shocking and disturbing given the known dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is a leading cause of accidents. In 2009, more than 1000 people died in accidents as a result of driving while distracted by a cell phone, with more than 24,000 injured in similar accidents.
This increase in cell phone usage has posed a variety of problems to legislators and judges nationwide. Currently, 39 states have laws that prohibit texting and driving, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Laws penalizing drivers for texting and driving use fines as the primary deterrent. The problem becomes much more complicated when there is an accident caused by a distracted driver.
Texting and driving is known to distract drivers for longer periods of inattention to the road, and has been said to be more dangerous than drunk driving. Punishments for those who cause serious accidents while texting and driving have been little more than “a slap on the wrist,” claims Jennifer Smith, an anti-texting-and-driving advocate. “In drunk driving cases you see normal sentences anywhere from two to 15 years and up. With texting and driving, you can see virtually no punishment, to a few days in jail, up to 30 days,” Smith said. “And in a few cases there’s been one, two years.”
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Recent cases in Ohio and Massachusetts have shown the problem judges are facing trying to impose established laws to this new phenomenon of texting while driving. In the Massachusetts case, the driver seriously injured a pedestrian while texting, and pled guilty to gross negligent operation of a motor vehicle resulting in injury. The penalty was serving 30 days in prison, followed by five months of home confinement and five years of probation. A similar case in Ohio resulted in a misdemeanor vehicular homicide. The driver was sentenced to just 45 days in jail. The accident occurred before texting-and-driving legislation was in place in the state, and was a major catalyst for the passing of the law.
If an accident results in death or injury, should the punishment be the same for a driver who was texting and a driver who was intoxicated?