Distracted driving – Legal Aspects, Controversies and Ethics

Various legal attempts have tried to address the problem of distracted driving. The American Automobile Association, Inc (herein after AAA) for instance presents a breakdown of the laws to combat distractive driving that were in existence per state in 2009. Inclusive of District of Columbia (DC), 11 states had established laws banning text messaging while driving, six states had banned use of hand held cell phones, 22 states had laws banning teen drivers from using cell phones, four states had laws on negligent driving that could include some forms of distracted driving practices, 25 states had established guidance for data collection on distracted driving, 10 states had laws on cell phone preemption, and 18 states had laws that banned the use of cell phones by school drivers while on the wheel (AAA, 2009, pp. 1-3). Some of the states at this time however rated lowly on the legislative measures they had established to curb distracted driving. For instance Pennsylvania had only laws on negligent driving while Georgia had laws that only banned the use of cell phones by school drivers (AAA, 2009).

Following the acknowledgement of distracted driving as a severe cause of road crashes, various laws have however come up. One of these has been a recent approval of a bill that awards grants to states that “enact bans on texting and using handheld mobile phones while driving” (“senate commerce committee”, 2010). Through such an initiative 28 states and DC are noted to have implemented bans on texting driving but some of the bans being secondary in nature indicating that they can only be enforceable once the police has stopped the offender for another breach (“senate commerce committee”, 2010). Similarly seven states plus DC have banned use of hand held cell phones while driving an increase from the numbers noted by AAA, while 28 states and DC have instituted bans on novice drivers’ use of mobile phone (“senate commerce committee”, 2010). The grants offered for as incentives under bill for establishment of these laws in the states are apportioned in a similar fashion as those for driving under the influence of alcohol and not using seat belts where “states must use at least half of the grant funds for distracted driving education, traffic signs, or enforcement of the ban; the rest could be used on other traffic safety provisions” (“senate commerce committee”, 2010, p.34). According the Distracted Driving Prevention Act of 2010, eligibility for the grants was subject to (a) making the violation of the bans instituted a primary offense (b) delineating a minimum fine for first-time offenses and subsequent increments on repeated violation, and (c) for drivers who violate the bans leading to an accident, imposition of increased civil and criminal penalties (as quoted in “senate commerce committee”, 2010, p.34). Further effects of the bill were to provide funds for campaigns against distractive driving and establishment of education programs for the same in states where the bans were implemented (“senate commerce committee”, 2010, p.34). Such attempts to curtail distracted driving have been evidenced by the issuance of an executive order by the president banning texting for federal employees while they are driving (NSC, 2010a).

Despite such legal efforts, various gaps have the potential to make distracted driving persist as a main contributor to the road crashes. One of such is the focus of laws only on hand-held devices neglecting the effect that even hands-free devices could have (AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 2008). Such gaps are also represented in the 2010 distracted driving prevention Act where the substitute bill allows, but does not require “states to allow the use of hands-free devices in order to be eligible for grant funding.  (“senate commerce committee”, 2010, p. 33). With the cognitive distracting effects of use of hands free devices being similar to those of hand held devices as discussed, the laws approach could prove inefficient in addressing distractive driving. Similarly other causative factors of distractive driving seem not to be addressed by the laws.

Just as in the legal approaches, controversies surrounding other attempts to curb distracted driving and other road crash causes could curtail the extent to which the problem is dealt with. Controversies have for instance arisen with the use of cameras at traffic junctions that aim to capture drivers’ transgression acts in film especially those who run the red lights (Oesch, 2007). Such acts have been attributed to lead to a high risk of crashes especially those of pedestrians crossing the street at that time (Oesch, 2007). One of the controversies surrounding such red lights use has been perceptions that they violate motorists’ privacy (Oesch, 2007). Though such has been suggested by many motorists and poses a potential for increased law suits, counterarguments that driving is a privilege rather than a right could provide a leeway for addressing distracted driving issue (Gostin & Jacobson, 2010). The enforcement of the laws aimed at reducing cases of distracted driving according to the interviewed traffic police officer needed to be streamlined across every state to ensure realizable gains were made in curbing the problem. A second controversy that has arisen with distractive driving control has been with respect to billboard advertisements advanced to increase the risk for causing distraction to drivers (Wachtel, 2007). Viewing billboards has been advanced to be one of the causes of visual distraction with the advent of electronic billboards being advanced to increase such risk (NHTSA, 2009a). This has not only been a subject that has presented controversy with heated debates between regulators and the marketing fraternity but also presents some of the ethical issues that characterise the distracted driving aspects (Wachtel, 2007).

Apart from the controversies identified, ethical issues could arise with manufacturers of automobiles keen on capitalizing on the demand for automobiles with potential distractors (Gostin & Jacobson, 2010). In the interview with the professionals it was advanced by the nurse that auto manufacturers may fail to honour their ethical duty to provide cars with the aspects of safety implications of distracted driving being addressed. The nurse for instance pointed out that rather than reduce the number of electronics that were being presented in cars, auto manufacturers were increasing these to include LCD screens that in addition to being cognitively distractive could also lead to visual distraction. The traffic police officer noted that in order to address the issues arising with ethical issues such as those of motor vehicle manufacturers, there needs to be laws that motivate prudent behaviour. Such was also noted of the arguments about privacy issues of the cameras aimed to combat incidences of distractive driving and other unsafe driving practices at road junctions. In this aspect the law enforcer opined that privacy could not be used as an excuse to present other road users and oneself to the risk of crashes. The NSC officer noted the current efforts to institute legislative control of distracted driving as being a step in the right direction but also observed that in some states the issue was largely unaddressed. Go to part 8 here.

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