Distracted driving needs uniform restrictions

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It’s a pity that it takes the heavy hand of government to ban practices that common sense would say are stupid, if not deadly. Such is the case with text messaging while driving, which the U.S. Dept. of Transportation recently outlawed for commercial drivers.

Studies show that texting and related behaviors – talking on a cell phone or reaching for an electronic device – increase crash risk at a much higher rate for truckers than for four-wheelers. Presumably trucks’ much greater stopping distance is the reason.

Looking at the broader picture of accidents and fatalities, the biggest group of motorized killers isn’t truckers. Of the 34,017 motor vehicle fatalities in 2008, 4,229 involved large trucks. Most of the truck-related accidents were not the fault of the truck driver.

It’s hard to determine the true number of fatal accidents due to communicating on electronic devices, especially tasks that divert attention from driving. But studies have proven just how dangerous is texting, the most distracting of these practices. Drivers who send and receive text messages take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds out of every 6 seconds while texting.

Texting is dangerous enough that President Obama signed an executive order directing federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles.

Furthermore, texting is banned for all drivers in 19 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. There remain 31 states where four-wheelers can legally drive while staring at a tiny device to poke out messages, one letter at a time.

State legislatures can become quagmires of petty politics. As with members of Congress, state legislators too often are distracted drivers themselves – more concerned with protecting the interests of the most vocal lobby or the most generous donors than with focusing on simple measures that could protect lives. When a growing practice is eroding safety on highways used by the entire electorate, though, it’s time to act.

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The federal government continues to tighten safety requirements for commercial drivers, as our stories in this issue about new regulatory initiatives make clear. Yet too many states skate by with lackadaisical attitudes when it comes to cracking down on four-wheeler licensing and enforcement issues that threaten safety. These include not just texting but alcohol violations and the absence of physical screening for elderly drivers.

Indeed, commercial trucks are inherently more dangerous than other vehicles for their massive size. But that factor is more than made up for by the number of other vehicles on the road, too many of which are driven by people whose driving skills on average are inferior to commercial drivers.

No state needs to offer unreasonable freedoms to a certain class of drivers. Safety restrictions that are prudent for professional drivers should also be prudent for amateurs. The innocent highway victim killed by a weapon on four wheels is just as dead as the victim killed by one on 18.