Ducey should sign SB 1080 (texting while driving). Here’s why.

Cross-posted from skyislandscriber.com.

Howard Fischer (Arizona Capitol Times, subscription required) reports that Texting ban on teenage drivers now only needs Ducey’s signature to become law.

Arizona is just one signature away from imposing its first-ever limits on the use of cell phones by teens.

On a 32–24 margin, the state House today gave final approval to legislation banning teens with a learner’s driving permit from texting or making calls from their cell phones while behind the wheel. SB1080 also extends that to the first six months they have their actual Class G license, which is reserved for the newest drivers.

The measure, which previously was approved by the Senate on a 24–6 margin, now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey.

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said only that his boss will review the bill.

But the issue could be more personal for Ducey. He has three sons, two of whom are of driving age.

Thursday’s vote came over the objection of some legislators who want Arizona to remain one of only two states in the country with no limits at all on cell phone use by motorists. They said their fear is that once Arizona restricts what teens can do, it’s just a small step to extending that to adults.

Exactly. It should be extended to all drivers. Here is why.

In the early 2000’s, Psychologist David Strayer at the University of Utah investigated the influence of cell phone use on driving errors. Here is some of a review of that research by the American Psychological Association Driven to Distraction. Driving and cell phones don’t mix.

Cell phones may be convenient but there’s one place they seem to do more harm than good – and that’s behind the steering wheel. Psychological research is showing that when drivers use cell phones, whether hand-held or hands-off, their attention to the road drops and driving skills become even worse than if they had too much to drink. Epidemiological research has found that cell-phone use is associated with a four-fold increase in the odds of getting into an accident – a risk comparable to that of driving with blood alcohol at the legal limit.

In one study, when drivers talked on a cell phone, their reactions to imperative events (such as braking for a traffic light or a decelerating vehicle) were significantly slower than when they were not talking on the cell phone. Sometimes, drivers were so impaired that they were involved in a traffic accident. Listening to the radio or books on tape did not impair driving performance, suggesting that listening per se is not enough to interfere. However, being involved in a conversation takes attention away from the ability to process information about the driving environment well enough to safely operate a motor vehicle.

According to Strayer’s laboratory research, cell-phone drivers were also more likely to miss traffic signals and often failed to see billboards and other signs. A special eye-tracking device measured where, exactly, drivers looked while driving. Even when drivers directed their gaze at objects on the road (during simulations), they still didn’t “see” them because their attention – during a cell-phone call – was elsewhere.

The Utah lab is also measuring the increased risk associated with cell-phone use relative to other real-world activities – most recently, alcohol consumption. Disturbingly, forthcoming research will show that talking on a cell phone (even hands-free) hurts driving even more than driving with blood alcohol at the legal limit (.08 wt/vol). When talking on a cell phone, drivers using a high-fidelity simulator were slower to brake and had more “accidents” than when they weren’t on the phone. Their impairment level was actually a little higher than that of people intoxicated by ethanol (alcohol).

Strayer and his colleagues compared data for hand-held and hands-free devices and found no difference in the impairment to driving, thus, they say, raising doubts about the scientific basis for regulations that prohibit only hand-held cell phones.

Real life implications

… drivers should also be aware that whether a cell phone is hands-on or hands-free makes no difference in terms of mental distraction. According to the research, the mental activity of conversation, whether in person or over the phone, is what takes one’s mind off the road. What happens in the head happens regardless of what happens with the hands.

… drivers need to remember that warnings (and, in some localities, legislation) about cell-phones and driving are prompted by cross-sectional studies of drivers of varied ages, educational levels, and years of driving. Susceptibility to distraction while driving has nothing to do with smarts or skill

Arizona SB 1080 now sits on Gov. Ducey’s desk. It is not perfect – far from it because of its failure to accommodate the above two lessons from applied research. Nevertheless, it is an important first step. We have laws aimed at prevention of driving while drunk. We should have parallel laws aimed at prevention of driving while distracted. Ducey should sign SB 1080.

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