Overstating the Texting While Driving Case

According to one study, driving distracted kills 5,500 people in car and truck accidents every year in this country. Don’t let the title of this blog fool you. It is beyond dispute that texting while driving is a growing part of this problem. The Baltimore Sun reports that 25% of teenaged drivers admit to texting while driving a car, and almost half say they’ve been in cars with someone who sent text messages. But kids are not the only problem. Adults that rolled their eyes at texting just a few years ago are now textaholics who read and write text messages while driving. The phenomenon is causing serious injuries and deaths on our nation’s highway. And the perpetrators are not degenerate criminals but people just like you.

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This all makes sense. The anti-texting advocates have me. But this is where they lose me: “Texting and driving is worse than drinking and driving.”

First, the statement is ridiculously misleading. Maybe, if some studies are true, you can better avoid an accident with a .08 blood level than you can in the middle of a text message. But you are drunk the whole time you are driving, not for an instant of receiving or sending a text message. So I’d rather be on the other side of a double yellow line of someone who sent a few texts than someone who is drunk any day.

But my larger criticism is the message the “worse than drunk driving” slogan sends. It is like we can’t say Heidi Klum is pretty without saying she is more attractive than Gisele Bundchen or complementing LeBron James without pointing out what he can do that Michael Jordan couldn’t.

With supermodels and basketball players, this is a harmless weakness of ours. But to elevate the risks of texting, some well meaning car safety advocates are indvertently but dangerously minimizing the risks of drunk driving.

Let’s face it, most of us know otherwise good people who occasionally drink and drive. But the number of people on our list that fall into that category has dropped in the last 5 years. Hasn’t it? The reason is the social stigma attached to drinking and driving has increased. No one wants those judgmental looks when they walk out of the party or bar.

But for a large number of people, avoiding drinking and driving is incredibly inconvenient and the social stigma is the only thing holding them back. When you equate texting while driving to drinking and driving, you knock that social stigma back a dangerous peg.

Maybe not so coincidentally, deaths from alcohol-related traffic accidents in Maryland jumped 12 percent from 2008 to 2009, from 145 to 162. This is Maryland’s first rise in the number of drunk driving deaths since 2006.

We need to sound the alarm on texting while driving and drinking and driving. There are so many alarms going off for so many different things, it is hard for important alarms to get the attention they deserve. But if your goal is to save lives, don’t sound the texting alarm by minimizing another very important alarm. So in case there is any ambiguity about that alarm, let’s restate the facts: 162 people died last year in Maryland drunk driving accidents.

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