When it comes to the dangers of texting and driving, there is no debate: those who text while driving are 23 times more likely to end up in an accident. As a comparison, those with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 are only 11 times more likely to be involved in a crash than someone who is sober. So you are more than twice as likely to crash while texting stone sober than you are when at the legal limit of intoxication.
Given the facts about texting and driving, it’s very reasonable that 46 states as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico have specific laws against the practice. But instituting these laws is only half the battle; assigning appropriate and consistent fines to those caught doing it seems to matter even more. However, the states are all over the map. In fact, 35 states have a higher minimum fine for littering than they do for distracted driving.
While no one is doubting the need for protecting the environment, the threat to life of texting and driving should absolutely warrant a high fine, which, based on our research, could be pivotal in decreasing this dangerous practice.
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How Many Accidents Actually Involve Texting?
Unfortunately, numbers in general for this kind of thing are vague at best. Underreporting as well as unreliable driver reports (no one is going to admit to using their phone while driving) have contributed to the scarcity of numbers in this regard. However, there is enough data to judge whether the penalties are decreasing texting and driving.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) puts out reports on distracted driving accidents and fatalities every year. The term “distracted” encompasses texting as well as a number of other scenarios, including: talking on the phone, eating or drinking, grooming, talking to passengers, reading, using a navigation system, watching a video and playing with the radio, CD or MP3 player. Because all of these things get lumped under the same umbrella, it can be difficult to tell just how many car accidents and fatalities can be attributed to texting on a state by state basis. However, in terms of national data, the NHTSA keeps detailed numbers.
In 2014, the year with the most recently available data, there were 22,00 injury accidents related to cell phone use. In 2010, there were 16,000 such accidents. This can not be taken at face value, however. In 2014, there were a little more than 7 billion cellphone subscriptions worldwide, 327,500,000 of those in the U.S. This means that, on average, every person on this Earth (plus a few more for astronauts and aliens) has a cell phone. In 2010, a mere three years after the first iPhone was released, the scale of cell phone use was much smaller. There were approximately 4.6 billion cellphone subscriptions worldwide, with 300,500,000 of those in the U.S.
This large increase in such a short amount of time can be attributed to new drivers, as well as experienced drivers, who may not have previously had a cell phone. In 2010, those aged 20 and younger were involved in 19 percent of fatality accidents with a cell phone. In 2014, that same demographic was involved in only 13 percent of similar accidents. The 20-29 group accounted for the largest portion; they were involved in 39 percent of fatal accidents involving cell phones in 2014. Those aged 18-29 also happen to send the most texts of any age group, typing out an average of 88 per day.
So the big question is:
Have Distracted Driving Laws Helped Curb Texting and Driving?
The answer here largely depends on the year in which the state enacted their law, as well as how harsh the penalties are. Some, such as Oregon, have had texting and driving laws in place since the early 2000s. California, for example, didn’t enact their law until 2011, so the effect on drivers there has not been positive. Most of the texting and driving laws that were only enacted in the last four years, or have a very low penalty, did not see a positive change in accident rates.
Oregon passed their texting and driving law in 2009; in that year they had 312 accidents involving cell phone use. The following year, they had only 206. However, in 2014 they had 272. In California, they didn’t enact their law until 2011, and there were 361 accidents involving cell phone use. The following year, there were 371, and in 2013 there were 483 accidents.
This could be because the accidents are now being more accurately reported in order to keep better track of the data, but it could also signal how ineffective their law is; after all, it’s only a $20 penalty for the first offense. In Oregon, the penalty is $500 for a first offense. People are not going to risk that much money just to send a text.
This very phenomena (harsh penalties curbing a driving behavior) has been studied for a long time, and the general findings are that the more strict the penalty, the more motivated people will be to abide by the law. Cornell published a study on this way back in 1969, and it said in part: “The consequences of apprehension-confrontation with a police officer, appearance in court, and possible license suspension-are much more visible and immediate than the relatively remote possibility of an accident.”
This is why we compared texting and driving with littering; if the penalty for throwing a banana peel out your window far exceeds literally taking your eyes off the road for seconds at a time, then it’s not going to be a very big motivator to keep that cell phone in your pocket. So creating a law which bans texting and driving is a small first step; harsher penalties (within reason: we are looking at you Alaska) can go much further in terms of preventing a very dangerous behavior.
Texting and Driving Fines vs Littering Fines by State: Details
The table below shows the minimum fine for each offense.
Could Increased Texting Fines Reduce Crashes?
Fatality rates from motor vehicle accidents continue to climb annually, and people are anxious for a solution. In 2015, there were 32,166 fatal motor vehicle accidents nationwide, which lead to 35,092 fatalities. This resulted in an average of 10.9 deaths per 100,00 people, which increased from 10.2 in 2014. Breaking it down by state, there were 28 states across the nation that exceeded the national fatality rate per capita of 10.9, and state averages ranged from 4.3 in Rhode Island to 24.7 in Wyoming.
It’s interesting to see that of the 28 states with fatality rates above 10.9, 22 of these have littering fines which surpass texting fines. For example, a driver in Wyoming would be fined $75.00 for texting and $750.00 for littering. While this state doesn’t top the list with the lowest fines for texting, it ranks in the top 10 for highest deviation between texting and littering fines. Taking a look at the states accident data, There were 129 fatal crashes in 2015, which took the lives of 145 individuals. This puts Wyoming’s fatality rate per capita 24.7, the highest rate of the states. While we can’t blame fatal accident rates solely on the texting and driving, could stricter texting fines help decrease accidents and fatalities?
The table below breaks down each state’s texting & littering fines next to car accident fatality rates in 2015.