Distracted driving, which includes activities like texting, eating or talking on the phone, has become a major cause of accidents across the United States in recent years. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2020 alone, 3,142 lives were lost in accidents involving distracted drivers.
Most states have laws against texting and driving, but with so many people dying every year in accidents involving distracted drivers, we have to stop and consider if those laws are truly effective at discouraging drivers from texting on the road. So we asked college students their thoughts on the matter.
We’re pleased to report that we received dozens of insightful responses on this important topic. While we ultimately had to select just 1 winner for this essay contest—Anastasia Shabalov from the University of Chicago—we wanted to highlight some of our favorite responses from other students and share their perspectives on the effectiveness of texting and driving laws in the U.S.
Here are some of their responses to the prompt:
Texting and driving: In South Carolina and other states, all drivers are prohibited from using a wireless communication device to compose, send or read a text message (or other text-based communications like email) while operating a vehicle on a public street or highway. Are these laws effective? Why or why not?
Anastasia Shabalov from the University of Chicago (scholarship winner):
“Traffic crashes are a leading cause of death in the US, with around 3.4 million people treated in emergency departments annually. The societal costs of traffic crashes were estimated to be $432 billion in 2016. In response to these staggering statistics, 48 states have banned some kind of cellphone use while driving, in an effort to reduce distracted driving. In particular, texting while driving bans have been proven to reduce fatalities, but states can take steps to make these laws even more effective.”
“The University of Alabama Birmingham School of Public Health analyzed eleven years of data, and they found that primary enforcement effectively reduces traffic fatalities by about 3% per year, averaging out to 19 deaths prevented per year. Importantly, texting bans are differentiated by primary or secondary enforcement. “Primary” enforcement means that driver may be pulled over and cited even though the driver has committed no other traffic offense. However, with a secondary ban, the driver cannot be stopped for texting while driving unless they have committed another infraction. This means that primary bans are typically more effective, in accordance to the University of Alabama’s findings.”
Anna Rowland from Temple University
“Essentially, there is no way to stop distracted driving, there are only ways to punish distracted driving. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports that they have not come to a consensus on the issue of laws surrounding mobile device usage. There is no clear evidence that these laws are stopping accidents from happening. NCSL reported that Colorado introduced, but did not pass, a law requiring mobile-device manufacturers to provide ‘network-level distraction-control technology available to their customers.’ Laws like this could be more productive in the effort to reduce distracted driving, but these laws would require significant debate to preserve the privacy of citizens while still protecting them.”
Grace Chen from University of Columbia
“The question of how to discourage behavior that is harmful to public safety is a question as old as society itself. And fundamentally, there is no clear answer. Even generations of research on human behavior and public policy have no consensus on whether or not punitive measures have a beneficial impact on reducing harmful behavior. This is why this question of the efficacy of South Carolina’s laws regarding the prohibition of wireless communications while operating a vehicle on a public street or highway is so complicated. There are multiple measures of effectiveness, like number of tickets given, and many are much harder to measure, like rates of recidivism and how effective of a deterrent the policy has.”
“Laws of any kind, especially regarding texting while driving, will be limited in what it can do. That is why crime of any kind exists, and the human nature to communicate and to be slightly indifferent to the public good in favor of personal benefit is perpetual. Laws are still key in preventing distracted driving and the harm to families that it causes, and statistical analyses over time have shown that laws like South Carolina’s have contributed to a national decrease in cases.”
Ryan Markowski from Texas State University
“Upon a quick search of car accidents, you’ll easily find statistics reflecting the number of automobile crashes both before and after cell phones changed the world as we knew it. The answer to the question of, are laws restricting the usage of cell phone devices during driving effective, is yes! The new, next, and future generations will be accustomed to these laws from the start and will have proper cell phone usage habits already in place before they ever get behind the wheel, therefore the drivers will be less distracted and more focused on other cars, signs, and pedestrians therefore saving lives!”
Briana Murch-Fortner from Southern New Hampshire University
“People still die from texting and driving every day, despite the existence of texting while driving laws. Hundreds and thousands die from breaking the safety laws or as victims of these law-breaking drivers. How could these laws possibly be effective?”
“As mentioned earlier, people still die due to drivers breaking the texting while driving laws. Some people will break the rules no matter what, like in other areas of the law. Cops prevent many deaths from occurring by performing their duties. Most of the population will follow the traffic rules to avoid the negative consequences of breaking the traffic rules. In this manner, the laws that prohibit texting while driving are effective. These laws save many lives. Only if the laws contained no negative consequences, would the traffic laws be ineffective.”
Aidan Filtz from Concordia University-Wisconsin
“The obvious answer would be no. These laws are rather hard for police to enforce in a timely manner. Distracted driving (especially texting and driving) is an impulse decision made by drivers. Accidents caused by distracted driving often happen very quickly after said impulse decision is made, giving neither the driver nor law enforcement the time to stop the collision.”
“A final reason why these laws could be ineffective lies in the driver’s education system. Even though the dangers of distracted driving are touched upon numerous times, nothing about the lesson is memorable enough to imprint upon the young drivers. These beginners are bored with the videos about test dummies and often write it off, wanting the class to be over. Without any sort of personal connection to these lessons, students will fail to take them to heart. They will text and drive until they are no longer able to.”
Alexandria Greenlee from Spelman College
“‘Ping!’ The sound that changed my life forever. In a car alone, just me and my phone, I heard a loud sound. A sound that caught my attention on a road that was once empty when I last looked up. ‘Ping!’ One sound caused a horrible accident involving a family of three and me. I’ve texted many times; this sound was not new, but the outcome was unforgivable. ‘Ping!’ how could such a clear sound be so haunting. What made this one text so different from the last?”
“I believe people need to see it in order to believe it. The fact that we still see individuals on their phones and driving daily shows that there is no concern for the consequences. Ultimately companies can make hundreds of features to prevent distracted driving, but if we as citizens don’t make an emphasis on stopping distracted driving, nothing will change.”
Nya Anderson from Mississippi Valley State University
“When driving down the interstate I am not unfamiliar with the sight of people in the driver’s seat with their phones out against the wheel. The best method to negate this is education about the topic. We all know people die, but when people are not aware of the hard-hitting consequences they do not care if mistakes are made or if they are doing something harmful. Thorough and comprehensive driver’s education training needs to be had before Americans get licenses and before we equip the wrong people to be on the road.”
Kesiena Oniovosa from Texas State University
“Drivers, more specifically teen drivers, have an overwhelmingly higher chance of dying in a car crash than their older counterparts–all due to the very thing that makes our generation unique. We, as a younger generation, need to face the facts. We are addicted to our wireless devices, and it is becoming increasingly more dangerous for ourselves and others.”
“Peer-Reviewed evidence aside, it follows that the explicit removal and ban of mobile devices in cars will decrease car crashes. If people do not have anything to distract them from the road, it will encourage them to pay attention and be mindful of their surroundings.”
“In conclusion, statewide bans on mobile devices in motor vehicles are a tremendous step towards making the roads of America safer for everyone, especially teenagers.”
Hani Chalhoub from New York University
“For a handheld device law to be effective, it must anticipate that some people will try and get away with breaking it. Unfortunately, these laws are not as effective as they could be due to their lack of anticipating new technology that help distracted drivers endanger themselves. But this doesn’t mean that the problem can’t get better. New laws can be introduced to check on technology and make it more difficult to get away with breaking laws. At the very least, I want you to leave this thinking that these laws are worth reviewing, because while your friends will be there after your drive, and you won’t miss out on much while driving, but you could miss out on a lot more if you or someone else is driving distracted.”
Duaa Alguheim from Fayetteville State University
“The punishment for texting and driving is just a $100 fee with no points deducted from their driver’s license. A small fine like that won’t have that much effect on people regardless of the enormous impact it can cause, such as taking someone’s life or ruining it by leaving them or you disabled. Texting and driving should have the same legal consequences as drunk driving. In my opinion, texting and driving are worse than drunk driving because of the person’s sobriety. Drunk drivers drive while intoxicated; they are too drunk to be aware of their actions or surroundings, but people who text and drive are completely sober and in their right mind to think about the impact they might cause and still choose to do it anyway.”
Think you could write a winning essay? Apply for our next essay contest!
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Thanks to all the students who participated in this contest, and best of luck in your studies!