Columbia, SC — FOR AS LONG as human beings have been consuming alcohol and being transported by something other than their own feet, people have been driving drunk. It was only after we got motorized vehicles — and a lot of them — that this became a threat to public safety. So it took a while for society to realize that drinking and driving was a dangerous combination.
But while our laws still aren’t as tough as they ought to be, we finally realized this was a problem.
Now there’s a new problem on our highways, one that started out deadly instead of taking thousands of years to become a killer.
Researchers report that texting and driving — which no one had even imagined a decade ago — has eclipsed drunken driving as a killer of teens: 3,000 deaths per year vs. 2,700. It also sends more teens to the emergency room: 300,000 vs. 282,000.
As the texting addiction ensnares ever-older drivers, and the already-addicted get older but no wiser, it’s only a matter of time until it becomes the top killer for grown-ups too.
And as with drunken driving, the S.C. General Assembly is determined to ignore the problem.
We’re not yet the only state that hasn’t outlawed texting while driving, but we’re quickly approaching that distinction: Forty states ban it; six more prohibit novice drivers from texting while driving.
That leaves South Carolina alone with Arizona, Florida and Montana (the only state with more deaths per vehicle mile traveled than South Carolina) in allowing people to text while driving. Unlike Montana and Florida, we don’t even collect data about texting that results in crashes.
Put another way, our state invites people to take their eyes off the road long enough to compose or read a message on a tiny screen. Long enough to engage in a rapid-fire conversation of typing and reading and typing and reading and typing and reading. Rather than watching out for that car in front of them that just slammed on brakes. Or the one beside them that’s swerving into their lane. Or just watching out for the light that’s turning red. Or the toddler who just darted out in front of them.
Researchers say people take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds to send or receive a single text message. Count out 4.6 seconds while you’re driving — with your eyes on the road; you’ll be astonished how far you go. At 55 miles per hour, that’s driving the length of a football field. Blindfolded.
And in South Carolina, it’s perfectly legal.
Which is perfectly incomprehensible.
Our legislators, of course, have all sorts of excuses for their inaction — that is, if they even acknowledge that they’ve been blocking the anti-texting bills. (Even Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s modest proposal to outlaw texting only while driving through a school zone spent the year stuck in subcommittee, like all the others.)
If we’re going to ban texting, then we need to ban talking on a cell phone as well, legislators say, knowing full well that the case is less clear for that. And if anyone got serious about banning cell phone use, they’d say we can’t do that unless we ban listening to the radio, or talking to a passenger, while driving.
All of which is sort of like saying we shouldn’t outlaw murder unless we’re also going to outlaw spanking.
Our texting apologists will note that the research that put texting ahead of drunken driving as our top teen killer found no difference in texting death rates in states with bans and states without.
And in so doing, they will demonstrate that they are oblivious to the way most laws work. The way they send a message about what society finds acceptable. The way the absence of those laws likewise sends a message about what society finds acceptable. The fact that changing those messages is a slow process. One that’s best started sooner than later.
States started outlawing drunken driving a century ago. Yet I can remember a time before designated drivers, when there was no social stigma absent a death, when Ted Vick wasn’t the only politician who thought it was politically safe to stumble out of a bar into his car.
Over time, attitudes changed, and so did behavior. Last month, when the National Transportation Safety Board urged states to lower their legal definition of drunken driving from 0.08 percent blood-alcohol concentration to 0.05 percent, it said the number of alcohol-related fatal crashes has held steady for the past 15 years. Not the rate. The number. Over that same period, the total vehicle miles driven in the United States has climbed by nearly 60 percent, which means the rate of people killed by drunk drivers has plummeted.
There are still too many needless deaths, and we still need tougher laws and enforcement — particularly here in South Carolina — but that is a dramatic improvement.
States didn’t start banning texting while driving until 2006, and most of those laws are less than five years old. That’s too soon to seep into our brains, to transform our way of thinking. Particularly when we’re talking about an addiction. Particularly when our biggest problem (at the moment) is with people whose brains haven’t fully developed. People whose raison d’etre is to defy authority.
Eventually, though, even children are affected by changing societal norms. The Centers for Disease Control reports that alcohol use among teen drivers has dropped by more than half since 1991.
The difference between driving under the influence of alcohol and driving under the influence of texting is that even South Carolina prohibits the former. While we continue to encourage the latter.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.