Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws that make it illegal to text while driving. Six others forbid new drivers from texting behind the wheel.
But that doesn’t stop drivers from doing it — and enforcing those laws can be difficult.
On a highway north of New York City, state Trooper Clayton Howell is in an unmarked SUV. He’s looking for drivers who are texting or using hand-held phones, which is banned in New York, along with 11 other states.
Even if you’re a pro, it can be really tricky to spot someone on a cellphone. State police have been using these unmarked SUVs to try to catch drivers.
“You can see down into the car,” Howell explains. “It’s a bird’s-eye view as opposed to being at the same level.”
He sees one driver who looks like she’s on her phone.
“See, I pulled right along next to her. She looked at me. And you can see now, no directional [signal],” he says. “Because it was in her right hand, and because I didn’t actually physically see the phone, I’m going to give her a break.”
People know it’s dangerous to use phones while they drive. They know it’s illegal. And they still do it anyway.
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee economics professor Scott Adams and a colleague looked at what happens when states pass texting and driving laws.
It turns out, people stop texting and driving for a little while — and then they start doing it again pretty quickly.
“What we saw was that there was an initial decline in accidents once texting bans were passed. That was quite substantial,” Adams says. “But after a few months, there was no effect.”
Adams thinks it’s partly because the consequences for getting caught are often pretty light. In some states, the police can’t even pull you over unless you’re doing something else wrong, like not using your turn signal.
In New York, you can get pulled over for cellphone violations, but the fines start at only $50. You do get five points on your license, but it takes 11 points before your license is suspended.
Drunk driving in New York, on the other hand, will cost you at least $500, and your license is automatically revoked for at least six months.
Arthur Goodwin, who studies distracted driving at the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina, says that decades ago, drunk driving was also essentially ignored by the public.
Then states started imposing harsher penalties. They made it clear that people who did it would be caught. Now, there’s a real stigma.
“There isn’t anything like that yet for cellphones, but at some point, society may frown on people who use cellphones while driving, just the way we do with drinking and drivers,” Goodwin says.
Back on the highway in New York, Howell is chasing down those distracted drivers.
“Now look at her driving on the dotted line there,” he says. “Now she’s actually coming into my lane, no directional, engaged in her phone call.”
He turns on the siren and pulls her over. “May I see your license and registration, please? Who were you talking to, miss?”
The driver is a young woman who says she had been talking to her mother — telling her she would call back later. She’s crying.
“I’m going to issue you a citation for operating a motor vehicle while using your mobile phone, OK?” Howell says.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that at any given time, more than 650,000 people are using their cellphones while they drive.
This one just got caught.