We’re taking it to the extreme in the name of safety
On the heels of a May report that Chicago’s distracted driving citations took a dive in 2016, it’s fair to wonder: should Illinois consider stricter penalties for first-time distracted driving offenders?
The basis for my argument is a simple one. If law enforcement can’t reasonably enforce the law, then the law should reasonably enforce itself. In other words, devising harsher, more damning penalties for talking on a cell phone or texting while driving may be the extreme deterrent law enforcement needs to cut down on the rate of distracted driving offenses.
If the matter is purely about making comparisons, then I refer people to this statistic: The Brain Institute of Chicago equates distracted driving as the equivalent of consuming four beers. If you happen to weigh 160 pounds, that’s a 0.080 blood alcohol level content, the threshold by which most states declare someone legally impaired. For first-time offenders, Driving Under the Influence can run in the neighborhood of a $2,500 fine, a suspended license for at least one year, and up to one year in jail time. Second and third-time offenders face even stiffer penalties, going as far as revoking licenses altogether.
There are many people who would have you believe that enforcing such laws is not only impractical but severely lacking enough statistical evidence to prove beneficial. We can look to a 2014 article by U.S. News and Reports, which pointed to 2004 when the NHTSA lowered the minimum BAC threshold in all 50 states from 0.10 to 0.08.
In this case, Gary Biller, president of the National Motorists Association and author of the article, argued that lowering the threshold would do practically nothing to change the drinking habits of Americans. He cited statistics from the NHSTA showing that highway fatalities dropped by 8.6 percent since 2003, but, he argues, the stats didn’t account for advances in auto safety technology like side air bags and better harnesses.
In closing, Biller says this: “The millions of dollars that would be spent in lowering the DUI limit to 0.05 would divert critical resources from that effort. And by arresting tens of thousands of moderate social drinkers every year who have not operated their vehicles unsafely but been deemed legally impaired, we have further burdened our overtaxed legal and correctional systems.”
Biller may have a point to a certain extent, but he also fails to acknowledge what the purpose of enforcing impaired driving is ultimately meant to do, and that’s keeping people safe. It may be impractical for local law enforcement to cite every possible distracted driver, as it is to cite every drunken driver, but it’s certainly better than nothing happening at all.
As we’ve seen in the last two years, the number of auto-related crashes nationwide has jumped by as much as 14 percent. Many attribute that to habits like texting while driving. As Tribune reporter Mary Wisniewski pointed out from her interview on WGN Radio a couple weeks ago, most people believe they can do it safely, and so they do so without thinking about the consequences.
If the penalties were steeper (increasing fines, sending people to jail, etc.), perhaps drivers might think about the consequences more seriously.