'DWT' getting adults' attention

The Baltimore Sun

Sorry, kids. The sleeping Grownup Majority is awake - and ready to clamp down.

In recent years, you've been free to drive down the road while sending text messages back and forth - largely because many adults had no conception that anyone would attempt something so clearly hazardous.

But Mom and Dad - and their moms and dads - are catching on. A recent Zogby poll found that 83 percent of adults it polled support a ban on driving while texting. Only 12 percent were opposed.

Even worse for dedicated texters, they can't even muster a majority among young adult drivers. Zogby found that 48 percent of those in the 18-to-24 age group support a ban, while only 38 percent oppose it.

The same poll found that 66 percent in that age group swap text messages on their cell phones while driving. That compares with 16 percent of all drivers.

So the political arithmetic is clear: A ban would be enormously popular among those who vote in the greatest numbers and would be opposed only by a minority of the least politically active age group.

Already Washington state has banned what Zogby calls DWT. Maryland voters can expect to see a race to the clerk's office this winter as legislators vie for lead sponsorship of a driving-while-texting bill - unless Gov. Martin O'Malley steals their thunder by making it an administration initiative.

Chances are it passes. While the General Assembly gets very nervous about curbing the driving stupidities of adults, it has been much bolder in imposing restrictions on younger drivers.

By the way, the Zogby poll also shows strong support for restrictions on the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Some 75 percent of Americans - 92 percent of those age 65 and older - support such a ban.

But the same poll also shows that 77 percent of American adults who own cell phones use them while behind the wheel.

These seemingly contradictory numbers pose a puzzle for politicians. Do people really want the government to help them break a bad habit? Or will they turn on lawmakers who try to take away a privilege they enjoy in a guilty way?

My guess is that most voters would back a ban on placing calls while driving. After all, there's not much difference between entering a number and texting - certainly not to a police officer observing such behavior. It would make sense to close that line of defense before the first culprit can raise it.

Incoming calls are a different matter. We're pretty much hard-wired to react to the ring of a phone. Not answering a call from a family member could be more distracting than taking the call. And pulling to the side of the road to take a call - and the subsequent re-entry into traffic flow - could be more dangerous than answering while driving. Discouraging cell phone use behind the wheel is a good idea, but a blanket ban could run head-on into the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Back on the ICC

Last week's column suggesting that the Intercounty Connector - if it is ever built - should incorporate state-of-the-art technology to enforce traffic laws met with a mixed reaction.

Long-distance commuter Roy Eisenstadt wrote: "I love the idea about controlling tailgating electronically. I drive 124 miles round trip from Owings Mills to Alexandria. I am sure we can keep traffic flowing, reduce accidents if we just leave distance [between] cars. Lane changes and merges can happen with ease. Traffic might slow down, but it won't stop. A slow continuous flow beats stop and go."

But another, named Aron, wrote that "your Orwellian traffic version of 1984 is truly scary. You'd have been right at home in the U.S.S.R. You don't present one good idea."

Aron went on to object to my suggestion that speed cameras should allow "maybe give a 5-mph cushion" before issuing a ticket.

"I guess you'd be surprised to know that your speedometer may be off due to the make of your car, the air in your tires, and several other factors. I'd like you get a ticket for going 6 miles over the speed limit, when your speedometer reads 1 mile over."

The 1984 comment doesn't hold water because speed cameras do nothing to invade privacy. Driving is a public act, Comrade.

The second point has a little more validity. Let's figure a speedometer could be off 5 percent without a driver realizing it. That's 3 mph at 60 mph. So add 5 mph to that and the driver gets a generous 8 mph cushion.

The result: You have to go 63 mph on the 55-mph ICC to get a camera-generated ticket. Sounds like a reasonable compromise to me. A driver who can't differentiate between 55 and 63 without a speedometer shouldn't be on the road anyway.

The tires? Sorry, they're the driver's responsibility. If you stick with the manufacturer's recommended tire size, your speedometer readings should be fine.

Make of car? Tell it to the judge. We can call it the Yugo Defense: If the car ain't fit, you must acquit. Don't leave your checkbook at home.



Find Mike Dresser's column archive at baltimoresun.com/dresser

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