By BROOKE KANSIER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan has banned texting while driving since 2010, but many Michigan teens are still typing away behind the wheel — and so are their parents.
Although a national study found reduced crash rates among states with a texting while driving ban, Michigan has not seen such a drop since introducing its own version of the ban.
The recent study, led by researchers at Texas A&M and published online March 19, found that states enforcing texting bans had a 7 percent drop in hospitalizations from serious accidents from 2003 to 2010, compared to states without bans. The study factored in alternative components as well, such as changes in speeding laws, drunk driving, and teen driving restrictions, with the texting laws having the highest correlation.
Michigan, however, has seen numbers move in the opposite direction, with accidents and accident-related injuries slightly increasing under its ban — from about 282,000 accidents in 2010 to about 289,000 in 2013, according to statistics from the State Police.
While the increase can be attributed to factors such as a normal fluctuation in crash numbers, changes in weather conditions and possibly even the ailing condition of Michigan roads, the numbers are a long way from the meaningful decrease experienced by other text-banning states.
Terry Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said the texting ban has not changed many drivers’ actions when it comes to distracted driving.
“I can tell you, just from driving around Lansing, the ban on texting and driving has had little effect on people,” Jungel said. “Attention is far more focused on the phone than on the road.”
Participating in distracting activities such as texting makes a driver up to 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“You’re playing Russian roulette when you’re checking your phone and you’re distracted by whatever means. Eventually, it’s going to catch up with you,” Jungel said.
Distracted driving can be particularly dangerous when it comes to inexperienced teen drivers. According to AAA, car accidents are the leading cause of death among teens, and activities such as texting accounted for nearly 58 percent of crashes.
“I think there’s a dangerous intersection of immortality and inexperience that exists with teen drivers,” Jungel said. “Which is why there is a larger percentage of teenagers involved in distracted driving accidents.”
While a 2012 AT&T survey found that adults admitted to the bad habit even more than teens — 49 percent compared to 43 percent, respectively — teens’ lack of experience can make them more susceptible to accidents, said Shanon Banner, public affairs director for the State Police.
“For teens, distractions coupled with their inexperience behind the wheel can be an especially dangerous combination,” she said.
Parents might play a role in their kids’ risky behavior, however, according to Lisa Timm, owner and instructor of Alpena Driving School, by modeling bad behavior.
“The parents are teaching them the habits,” she said. “They’re the ones that are texting while they’re driving, and its more of a ‘do what I say, not as I do.’”
In fact, according to the organization Texting and Driving Safety, 48 percent of teens have watched their parents text behind the wheel while in the car with them. The minimum amount of time spent looking away from the road at a text is about 5 seconds — long enough to create a potentially dangerous situation for everyone in the vehicle.
“At 55 mph, you can span the length of a football field in five seconds,” Jungel said. “You can’t say, ‘I’m more experienced, I’m allowed to do it.’ The fact of the matter is, anytime you’re texting and driving, it’s distracted driving and it’s dangerous driving.”
Banner encourages parents to educate their teens on the dangers of texting behind the wheel, and to be good role models as drivers themselves.
“Parents are the number one influence on the kind of driver their teens become,” Banner said.
While habits learned at home can be a large contributor, especially with teens, Timm also said Michigan’s fines are too lenient and enforcement can be too lax. In Michigan, texting while driving is a “primary stop,” meaning an officer can pull over a driver simply on the belief that they were texting. In other states, while officers are able to issue tickets due to texting, they cannot use the driver’s texting as a sole reason to pull them over.
“No one, in my six years of teaching drivers ed, has ever had it enforced,” Timm said. “I’ve talked with the local authorities, and they say it’s hard to prove.”
According to Banner, however, enforcement is not a problem, and it is not hard for officers to spot a texting driver.
Michigan law charges a $100 fine for first offenders and $200 for each following offense under the texting ban. Fines vary greatly by state, from California charging only $20 for first offenders, to Alaska’s whopping fine of up to $10,000 — and up to a year in jail.
Enforcement and fines aren’t the problem, however, Jungel said.
“I don’t think we can legislate ourselves out of this type of social issue,” he said. “I don’t think this is something that is going to change because of our enforcement efforts. I think it has to change because society recognizes that it’s dangerous.”
By BROOKE KANSIER