Road Worrier

Texting ban, but what about the rest?

Staff WriterAugust 11, 2009 

This year the General Assembly outlawed a few of the dumb, distracting things drivers do when they really should keep two thumbs on the wheel and two eyes on the road.

One law that takes effect Dec. 1 will forbid motorists from using mobile phones for text messages and e-mail behind the wheel.

North Carolina already had a quaint law against watching a TV broadcast while motoring. But how would we even do that? With a rabbit-ears antenna mounted on the hood?

The legislature modernized this sensible ban. Effective Oct.1, the new law prohibits driving "while viewing any television, computer or video player" that is located in the front seat and visible to the driver.

Texting is an up-and-coming trend, especially for younger folks. Behind the wheel, it's really dangerous. New studies show that when a driver is texting, the risk of an accident increases between eight and 23 times.

As one of only 15 states that have outlawed texting while driving, North Carolina is a little ahead of the curve here. There's a push in Congress for a national ban.

But we're playing catch-up at curbing other technology use that puts everybody on the road in danger.

Using a cell phone behind the wheel is legal in North Carolina except for drivers under 18 and school bus drivers of any age.

"People know full well that you shouldn't be talking on the phone while you drive, but they do it anyway," said Robert D. Foss, a senior research scientist at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill.

"They try to avoid it," Foss said, "but it's as if that thing reaches out and grabs them. Somebody on the other end of my phone wants to talk to me, so I'll just grab it."

Drivers' attention divided

Foss is an authority on driver distractions. He has videos of crashes that occurred as drivers struggled to divide their attention between their phones and the traffic around them.

"Anything that takes your eyes off the road for more than a split second is highly dangerous," Foss said. "The longer or more frequently it takes your eyes off the road, the more dangerous."

Safety experts, legislators and police agree that North Carolina's newest safety laws will be hard to enforce. A trooper often won't know whether the law is being broken when a driver glances toward her lap or punches buttons on his phone.

But Foss says the texting ban still can save lives.

"If they know it's the law, a lot of people will comply," he said. "But it's going to make no difference whatsoever if it's not widely publicized."

$100 fine for texting

Violation of the texting ban is a $100 infraction, but with no insurance points and nothing on your driving record. The new laws include exceptions and make clear that it is still legal for drivers to engage in plenty of dangerous, distracting practices.

Drivers are explicitly allowed to check numbers and Caller ID names on cell phones. It's legal to play with GPS navigation gizmos, consult traffic and weather update gadgets, check audio-system displays and gaze at video screens "that enhance the driver's view in any direction, inside or outside of the vehicle."

What else can we drivers get away with, besides yakking on the phone?

There's nothing in the law that says we can't read a magazine or stir our coffee. If we feel like it, we're free to make a shopping list, tie our shoes and adjust our makeup as we career down the highway.

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