Telecommunications Policy

Indiana Bans Texting While Driving. But Web Surfing While Driving Is Still OK!


She's reading Morning Links.

The state of Indiana has officially banned texting while driving. Starting today, it is illegal to use any "telecommunications device to type, transmit or read a text message or an electronic mail message" at the same time you are driving. Individuals caught violating the texting ban face a possible $500 fine.

But don't worry. It's still legal to post comments to Hit & Run from behind the wheel. The Indy Star reports:

Activities such as searching the Internet, playing games and making a playlist on your iPod all remain legal for drivers, who are prohibited only from texting and emailing. The law was watered down after Indiana lawmakers balked at a comprehensive ban on using handheld devices behind the wheel.

"We were just not able to get that done in the legislative session," said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, who had supported a full ban but agreed to sponsor the existing law. "This is the best that we could do," he conceded during a news conference Thursday to outline the new law.

Is there a point to passing a law that bans texting but not, say, a Facebook message or a blog post? If anything, it seems likely that banning just one form of mobile communications is likely to drive more people to attempt even more awkward, and possibly more dangerous, work-arounds. 

According to The Star's report, the Republican lawmaker behind the texting-only statute gave two reasons for focusing only on texting. First, he wanted to increase the chances that the law would pass constitutional muster. "The other challenge," he said, "is the swift evolution of technology." There's a simpler way to avoid constitutional challenges and avoid being overtaken by new technology: Don't regulate texting while driving at all! 

But what about the safety implications? Won't a texting ban make the state's roads safer? Dangerous driving is what's on the mind of one Indiana police chief: 

Bluffton Police Chief Tammy Schaffer said she routinely sees drivers sending text messages.

"We're not going to catch everybody that's texting," she said. "But maybe if we can catch a few we can make our roads a little bit safer."

Maybe. But there's empirical evidence to suggest otherwise. According to a study conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute last year, texting bans haven't resulted in decreased vehicle crashes. And in three of the four states that HLDI studied, crash rates increased following the passage of texting bans. The working theory as to why is that once texting bans kick in, drivers simply hold their phones lower in order to avoid being seen by police, and thus avert their eyes from the road for longer periods of time. So Chief Schaffer may indeed see fewer people texting on the road thanks to the new law. But that doesn't mean they won't be doing it, or that her state's roads will be any safer.