Road Worrier

Texting while driving law not so straightforward

Staff WriterDecember 28, 2010 

My smart phone makes me stupid when I drive.

I don't think I'm alone in this.

Oh, I've been good (not perfect) about keeping my 2010 resolution to stop phoning and taking calls at the wheel.

And North Carolina's ban on texting while driving does not create hardship for me, as it apparently does for a zillion text junkies out there - the reckless ninnies who can't keep their thumbs on the wheel, their eyes on the road and their cars in a straight line.

But I still need to wean myself from the fascinating, street-legal functions on my phone that might be called, to use a 1990s expression, killer apps.

There are lots of things we drivers legally can do on our Droids, Blackberrys and iPhones that would be illegal on other devices, thanks to another state law that forbids drivers to look at computers and video screens. Think YouTube.

And there are even more activities that are legal on a smart phone but no less distracting than texting, and no less dangerous.

Reading and sending e-mail are included in North Carolina's texting ban, which took effect in December 2009. But there's nothing that says we can't read today's horoscope or Road Worrier column on your smart phone - or on paper, for that matter - while we zoom down the highway.

The texting law says drivers may not "manually enter multiple letters or text in the [mobile telephone] as a means of communicating with another person." That probably rules out posting updates to Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

But the law does not appear - hey, the Road Worrier is not a lawyer - to prohibit drivers from using their phones to check messages and photos that other folks post on Facebook and Twitter.

That doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Little wonder that we don't hear about Highway Patrol crackdowns on drivers who text. Our distracted driving laws aren't easy to enforce.

It's hard for an officer to know whether thumbs are breaking the law when you manipulate your gadget at the wheel. And it's hard to tell whether a young driver is younger than 18, and therefore covered by the state's age-limited ban on phoning while driving.

Still, our legislature made a good start and an important statement when it enacted these limited bans on technology-related driving distractions. The proof is piling up to show that cell phone use is a growing hazard that we can reduce, if we'll do it.

Researchers compare phones to alcohol in their power to distract attention and delay reaction times for drivers.

According to a University of Utah study, if you're talking on the phone while you drive, even a hands-free device, you're as dangerous as a driver with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent. In other words, you might as well be drunk.

The National Safety Council figures that 28 percent of all crashes involve drivers who were texting or talking on the phone.

GPS and Shazam

I haven't seen any studies on my two favorite smart phone apps: GPS and Shazam.

North Carolina law expressly permits drivers to use their gadgetry to find directions on the road. And it's so cool to stare at that little screen and see how the throbbing blue dot that represents my car is moving across the map.

Shazam is one of those marvelous, frivolous apps for obtaining instant gratification. In this case, for identifying a song I hear on the radio.

A couple of taps on my phone with my right thumb, and Shazam matches what it hears with some vast, remote digital database of recorded music. In a few seconds, it displays the song title and performer.

I can't tell you how this is possible, and I can't tell you what happened in traffic while I was distracted by this silly thing.

And I can't wait for the legislature to outlaw Shazaming while driving.

I'm going to have to think about this for my 2011 resolutions.

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

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