Road Worrier

Keep thumbs on wheel, not your cell

Staff WriterDecember 1, 2009 

It's more than moronic to read and send text messages and e-mail while you drive. Starting today, texting while driving is against the law, too.

North Carolina still lets drivers indulge in lots of dangerous distractions - with gadgets and without them.

But with this new texting ban, we take another step toward curbing the spread of new technology habits that when practiced behind the wheel are as deadly as they are irresistible.

Drivers in North Carolina can be fined $100 for using mobile phones to type or to read text messages or e-mail. It's not called a traffic violation, so it won't affect driving privileges or insurance.

North Carolina already forbids us to watch TV or look at computers or DVD players while driving. Talking on the phone is still allowed - except for school bus drivers and all drivers under 18.

What's the big deal about texting at the wheel?

Surveys show that it is surprisingly popular, especially but not only with young drivers. Among Americans ages 16 and 17, 43 percent say they have talked on the phone while driving, and 26 percent have texted while driving, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

And research shows that the practices are alarmingly dangerous. A Virginia Tech study of truckers found that talking on a cell phone increases the risk of a crash fourfold, and texting multiplies that risk 23 times.

"Texting is clearly a very dangerous thing to do," said Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill. "It takes your hands and your eyes and your brain off the road, all at the same time."

Will the new ban make a difference? That depends on enforcement and education, Goodwin said. Researchers found that sustained enforcement of a ban on drivers' hand-held phones had a lasting effect in the District of Columbia. But police showed less interest in a ban in New York State, and drivers there resumed their bad habits.

It might be hard for a law enforcement officer to spot a phone in a driver's lap - or to tell whether the driver is staring at the thing for lawful purposes. It's still legal to fiddle with a music playlist, check caller ID or consult GPS navigational instructions.

"It's probably going to have to be largely self-enforcing," Goodwin said. "Hopefully, people will think it's a reasonable law and texting while driving is dangerous."

We can't count on law enforcement alone to uphold the new ban on texting while driving. We'll have to nag each other about this. Repeat after me: "Put your thumbs on the wheel and your eyes on the road! If you need to check your e-mail, pull over."

License plate frames

Also becoming law today is a ban on those fat frames that obscure important information on our license plates, often with ads for car dealers or alumni clubs. Under the new law, your license plate frame is illegal if it covers the "the State name, year sticker, or month sticker" on a license plate.

Some people interpret that capital-S "State" to mean North Carolina plates only, but they're wrong. Giles Perry, a General Assembly staff lawyer who helped draft the law, says "State" in this case means any state.

For the next 12 months, violators will receive warnings. Starting Dec. 1, 2010, fat-frame offenders will be subject to a $100 fine.

That gives you a year to ask your auto dealer or your alumni association, if they want to keep your business, to make your car street-legal.

Enlighten the Road Worrier: or 919-829-4527

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