People can be very bad at evaluating risk. We worry more about shark attacks than drowning; we are more afraid of terrorism than we are of choking. If we were better with these calculations, there would be no gambling industry.
That’s why it’s good news that Maine now has one of the toughest penalties in the country for texting while driving, an incredibly dangerous activity that people think is only dangerous when other people do it.
Stand on any street corner in Maine and you will likely see drivers who distract themselves by looking at their cellphones. Some convince themselves that it’s OK because they are just reading, not typing (it’s not). Some think they are being safe because they are holding the phone in a way that lets them see the road (they can’t). Some think it’s not too dangerous to look away for just a second (it is).
So, if risking their own lives and destroying the lives of others is not enough motivation for people to keep their cellphones in their pockets, maybe a $250 fine for a first offense and a $500 fine for each additional offense within three years will do the job.
If that’s not enough, perhaps the escalating license suspension that will come with multiple offenses, 30 days for a second offense, 60 days for a third and 90 days after that, will get the drivers stop doing what common sense should tell them is too dangerous.
Texting while driving results in 1.6 million accidents per year, according to the National Safety Council, which is nearly 25 percent of all accidents.
Texting while driving makes you 23 times more likely to crash. It results in 300,000 injuries annually and an average of 11 teen deaths a day.
Toughening penalties is a good step, but it won’t be nearly enough to address this serious public health problem. This will require a multi-pronged approach, combining education as well as enforcement to get the message out.
It will also require that we develop the kind of disdain we have of people who drink and drive – a less risky activity than texting behind the wheel, according to the numbers.
We should not text while driving, but we also should not tolerate it when it’s done by our children, parents and friends.
This problem won’t be solved by a law. It will take a society-wide decision to be smarter about evaluating the real risk this technology poses.