personal injury attorneys boston ma scholarship banner
Joshua Beckman

First Place: Joshua Beckman

Coatesville, PA 

I have been homeschooled my entire life, and I will be attending Lancaster Bible College in the fall, Lord willing. I intend to major in Pastoral ministry, and I want to spend my life serving others in the name of Christ.


Can Distracted Driving be Stopped?

INTRODUCTION

Many are familiar with it. Distracted driving—especially texting or calling—has become a major problem. As Stephen Joseph, a lawyer and campaigner, stated, “it’s not taken seriously enough. Everybody thinks they can multitask, but they can’t. There’s no such thing as safe multitasking.” It’s deceptive. And it’s causing death. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, 3,477 people were killed as a direct result of distracted driving in 2015.

But what is the solution? State governments have been instituting laws, banning distracted driving in various ways, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. There have been many answers proposed, ranging from the simple to the extreme. But despite all the efforts towards ending distracted driving, the death toll remains frighteningly large.

What must be remembered is that this is first and foremost a battle for and with people. Every one of the deaths that happen on the roadway due to distracted driving is an interaction between people; and in the battle for life the people possessing that life must not be forgotten. The greatest danger of distracted driving is its threat to people; its greatest proponents are people. To eliminate the danger, we must address the proponents.

THE PROBLEM

What is distracted driving? According to FindLaw, “Distracted driving is driving while performing any activity which could potentially distract a driver from the primary task of operating a vehicle.” The most common forms of distracted driving are texting and calling on a phone.

The issue is hard to overstate. “New data collected from thousands of drivers suggest that more than half of all trips that ended in a crash also included some form of distraction from a mobile phone.” Besides over 3,000 deaths caused by distracted driving in 2015, there were over 420,000 injured. These are numbers that simply cannot be ignored.

“I think it’s literally murder if you kill someone while you’re texting and driving,” said Joseph. While this is an extreme viewpoint, his passionate accusation is directed at a very real and dangerous threat. Distracted driving isn’t going away, and as the statistics show, it ends in death. In fact, with tech companies such as Apple and Android developing technology that actually uses newer cars’ screens to show texts, some think the problem will only increase. It must be dealt with, a fact many people are waking up to. There are currently many solutions being considered or put into action.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Evan Lieberman died young. At age 19, he was carpooling with some co-workers in New York when the accident happened. Another vehicle crashed into them, sending multiple people to the hospital and ultimately ending in Evan’s death. His father did not accept the story given by the man in the other car and subpoenaed his phone to see if he had been texting or calling. The legal process that ensued birthed Distracted Operators Risk Casualties, a coalition that pushed for a bill in the New York Assembly that would “allow police to analyze a driver’s phone without a warrant after a car crash to see if prohibited use had occurred.” It is frequently referred to as the “textalyzer” bill, and has been the subject of much controversy.

The average time a driver operates a phone per 100 miles is about 3.82 minutes in states that don’t ban it; in states that do, the average is about 3.12 minutes. Clearly, legislation isn’t enough. One interesting solution has been proposed by CMT, a company formed by former professors, including from MIT. The chief technology officer noted, “Drivers now have access to tools that analyze their driving and achieve real behavioral change through immediate and ongoing feedback.” What they propose is recording driver’s phone use with the very smartphones that distract them, and then using apps to share that information with them. This way, the drivers will be able to educate themselves and see exactly what is happening as a result of their distraction.

App use is not an uncommon solution proposal. AT&T, Inc. is promoting a campaign for another app, AT&T Drive Mode. It “silences message alerts and auto-replies when driving ‘to let friends and family know you can’t respond.’” However, Joseph isn’t satisfied with it. It’s “not nearly big or effective enough. It’s not intelligent enough. They’re not showing people the process of distraction going on in the mind.”

Potential solutions can be placed into three categories. Police-strengthening proposals, such as the texalyzer bill, attempt to solve distracted driving by enabling the police to gather more information from phones, thereby strengthening the force of the law. Hard-stop solutions, such as AT&T Drive Mode, simply shut phones down in order to stop drivers from using them at all. And finally, education solutions such as CMT’s proposal aim simply to educate drivers about the danger, believing distracted driving will stop once people see its effects. Will these solutions work? Addressing a relatively new problem, the proposed plans have not undergone the test of time. Only evaluations and subsequent predictions can be made right now—time will give us the final answer.

The ‘textalyzer’ bill proposal would certainly be a useful tool to police and a deterrent to drivers. However, it has one major drawback—it is unconstitutional. While there is a fierce debate over whether or not that statement is true, a brief examination of two factors gives the answer.

First, despite the fact that the data to be collected by the textalyzer bill would only be metadata, which shows that a call or text has occurred (not its content), this data is still incredibly revealing. One study performed by Patrick Mutchler, PhD candidate at Stanford, reveals much on this topic. “Armed with an outgoing phone number and callduration, coupled with a search of online databases such as Yelp, the study was able to correctly infer whether someone owned an AR semiautomatic weapon or had a chronic health condition.” Metadata is still significant personal information.

Second, the very spirit of the constitution supports this conclusion. Thomas Jefferson uttered a pivotal statement when describing how to interpret the document. We must, he said, “On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.” We ought not to attempt to twist the words to suit our ends, but examine them the way they were examined then, in the debates, the ratification, by their authors.

When the bill is examined in this light, it becomes clear that it is unconstitutional. Our Founders specifically placed the amendment in the Bill of Rights to prevent the government’s acquiring such personal data without a warrant. The Supreme Court agreed in the case Riley v. California, where it said in a unanimous decision: “Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest. Our cases have historically recognized that the warrant requirement is ‘an important working part of our machinery of government,’ not merely ‘an inconvenience to be somehow ‘weighed’ against the claims of police efficiency.’”

Thus it is seen that while the textalyzer bill—and other police-strengthening solutions—are ingenious and probably effective, they cannot be safely put into practice without compromising our country’s greatest principles concerning privacy and the right against unreasonable search. Even though it may impair the ability of police to combat crime. As the Court itself said, “We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime… Privacy comes at a cost.”

As to hard-stop solutions such as AT&T’s Drive Mode app, it is too soon to tell how effective they’ll be. However, a look at another infamous hard-stop solution may shed light on the unclear future of this idea.

In 1919, the 18th Amendment was passed, banning the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol. It was repealed in 1933 after a 13-year run that left it viewed as a failure. In The Montana Lawyer, Karen Powell sheds some light on why: “During Prohibition, the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol was illegal, but not the consumption of alcohol.” This “loophole” was the catalyst in the incredible rebellion to the amendment that followed. Places known as speak-easies—black market bars—started and thrived. As Powell goes on to state, “In New York, there were over 30,000 speakeasies during Prohibition.” And of course, “People were also making their own wine, cider, ‘bathtub gin’ and ‘moonshine’ at home.”

What was the reason for prohibition’s failure? People didn’t want it to succeed. It banned something that the people wanted; they chose it anyway and found loopholes. This often happens with an attempt to completely ban something. Whenever people have freedom, some may use it for evil.

When this lesson is applied to Drive Mode, a relatively certain prediction is seen. Its major drawback is that it allows freedom. Some will use the app; it will likely make an impact on distracted driving. But it will not eradicate it. No one is mandated to put this app on a phone; and even if they were, some would most certainly rebel—the lesson of prohibition. The problem is not in the technology. The problem is in the people. This idea is good, but it falls short—it underestimates the contribution of people to the problem.

This leads, logically, to the education solution, for it aims to solve the problem not through technology or government strength, but through the people. However, even this has not been totally effective. Many campaigns have been run, for example, on the dangers of drunk driving—and yet it continues. While CMT’s proposed solution has indeed reduced distracted driving , it likely won’t eliminate the problem entirely—for the problem lies not in people’s knowledge but in they way they view that knowledge. If a person truly weighed the costs, they would see that reading or sending a text is not worth the danger of dying or killing someone else; and yet it continues to happen.

What, then, is the answer—or is there one? In order to truly see distracted driving as it is—and subsequently find the solution—one must not neglect the broad influence of culture on the narrower issue of texting while driving. The answer lies in what is not being examined. And while the law is indeed a major player, one that desires to truly resolve a multi-faceted issue must embrace solutions outside of the legal realm if the issue is to be truly solved.

THE INFLUENCE OF CULTURE

This is the age of superhero movies. With Marvel’s successful streak of the Avengers series and a similar campaign from DC Comics, our culture is inundated with visions of larger-than-life heroes who brave danger for the good of mankind. Ignoring rules and advice that stands in their way, these characters don’t stop to calculate risk; they simply charge ahead and overcome any obstacle for the sake of the mission. And it’s thrilling. But this is the problem; danger is inextricably linked to excitement. The symptoms of this are seen in driving habits. Speeding is a major problem on U.S. roadways. The threat of speeding is self-evident; going faster results in increased danger. Yet in 2015 more than 41 million people were issued speeding tickets.

Downplaying danger alone is not the problem, however. The real issue is that death itself is glamorized and the value of life has been diminished to the point of being negligible. This culture has been conditioned to accept death as normal. It is no longer shocking, though it is still saddening. Shootings don’t dominate headlines anymore—but they still happen. The Gun Violence Archive records shootings that have happened in the U.S. in the past 72 hours. There is one that happened on April 10 where three people, a woman and her two students, were killed in a shooting at a school. This didn’t provoke national outrage. No one would ever admit it, but the culture has been conditioned to the point of acceptance.

This attitude may be having drastic consequences. This could easily be playing a part in distracted driving; people just don’t think about the costs. The threat of death isn’t shocking enough to force an evaluation in the mind of a driver about what they are doing and what it could cost—while those who have experienced it personally realize too late just how valuable such an evaluation would have been.

How can this culture recapture the shock of death and the reality of danger? Only through the realization of the value of life. Death’s cost cannot be properly understood without life’s value. If life were truly valued as priceless in the minds of drivers, texting would never be worth it while operating a vehicle. The risk would be too high. But as it is, death is normal and danger is exciting. It’s a tough hill to climb—but it could be climbed by the value of life.

But how can this value be recaptured? Thomas Jefferson penned in his immortal Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” How can life be valued if it is no longer seen as being endowed by a Creator? In a culture that intellectually embraces the idea of life as being simply an assortment of molecules and survival of the fittest being the highest value, it is no wonder that death is downplayed. In strict academic terms, death is helpful. It decreases the surplus population. It helps with natural selection. All these ideas run through our culture, and we must not underestimate their influence on an individual’s thinking, even if subconscious.

And life? In this view, life is nearly meaningless. It is just a random assortment of physical matter that possesses the ability to think and do. The right to life comes merely from the fact that the person lives, and nothing more. If anything, the prevalence of a “survival of the fittest” mindset may be exacerbating the problem by exalting the individual who is less cautious and can “multitask better.” Though the large majority of people likely don’t hold to this view and its consequences consciously, its influence must not be discounted on that basis alone. Policy and initiative must take it into account when addressing the problem of distracted driving—which originates, after all, in people and their decisions.

CONCLUSION

In order to recapture the value of life and the shock of death—and so take a necessary step towards convincing people of the danger of distracted driving—perhaps a view of a Creator must be embraced. Intellectually, the value of life is difficult to defend from a purely secular standpoint. Seeing life as originating in a Creator—as our country’s founders did—gives life intrinsic and inherent value. It becomes something that is endowed and therefore unalienable. It acquires the aura of infinite value in the eyes of the culture. And death begins to shock again, for it doesn’t merely take the breath from a collection of matter, it strips the rights from a created human being.

Perhaps this is the answer. Current views on law would object that this is too much of religion in legislation, and church and state must remain separate. But before this is settled as the final word, this culture must ask itself: why is life valued at all? Once this question is answered, the focus for solving the problem of distracted driving can become clear. The answer might lie in policy. It might lie in initiatives or campaigns. But in order for the answer to become clear, life and its value must be put in their proper places. If life is truly priceless, that must be the starting point of any solution. And if the solution is ineffective, perhaps it’s time to take a broader look at the views of today’s culture and cast a critical analysis on their consequences.