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Officials worry drivers will continue texting

BY RACHEL BRUSSTAR
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 20, 2011

About eight months after texting while driving became illegal in Michigan, local officials say the ban is permeating driving culture. But some drivers still have one hand on the wheel and the other on the phone.

Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm turned Michigan House Bill 4394 into law with her signature on Apr. 30, 2010. The law prohibits drivers from reading, writing or sending text messages while driving.

Prior to the statewide legislation, the Ann Arbor City Council proposed a citywide ban on all hand-held electronic devices while driving. The proposal was dropped after the state law was passed.

As Ann Arbor City Council member Stephen Rapundalo (D–Ward 2) explained, the passage of the state legislation eliminated the need for a city ordinance.

In drafting the city proposal, Rapundalo consulted with Paul Green, a research professor at the University’s Transportation Research Institute.

Green has testified twice before the state legislature on the risks of using hand-held electronic devices while driving. He said he’s concerned that despite the statewide ban, people will continue to text while driving.

“As market penetration of phones increases, and as people make a greater use of texting … the frequency of texting while driving would increase,” Green said. “So what we see now would only be a small part of the potential problem.”

Green said that while younger generations tend to text more frequently than older individuals, the population as a whole is becoming more accepting of texting as a means of communication. Young adults, however, continue to pose the highest risk while engaging in distracted driving.

“Younger drivers tend to be less experienced and tend to be less capable at multi-tasking while driving, so therefore they’re more susceptible to problems,” Green said. “And if they’re more frequently engaging in texting, then that compounds the situation.”

While it may not be possible to completely eliminate the danger of texting while driving, Green said the University’s Transportation Research Institute is currently engaged in research on the topic. He said they hope to change the method of texting in the future by exploring new hands-free options.

Rapundalo, the lead sponsor of the former citywide texting proposal, said the ordinance would have also prohibited drivers from making phone calls while driving, in addition to banning all hand-held electronic devices that weren’t directly fixed to the dashboard. While the statewide law doesn’t include a ban on talking on the phone while driving, this portion of the proposed citywide ordinance, among others, haven’t been pursued.

The push for such legislation at the local level came in response to concerns about distracted driving as a result of drivers’ use of hand-held electronic devices, Rapundalo said.

“There was a lot of distracted driving predominantly due to the use of hand-held electronic devices, and (the citywide proposal) was an attempt to mitigate some of the inherent dangers and outcomes of that here locally,” he said. “(It was) pretty much on par with what other communities here in Michigan … have tried to do or have done.”

The initial plans to implement legislation to ban the use of hand-held electronic devices in the city were met with mixed reactions from city residents, according to Rapundalo. Some Ann Arbor residents were concerned that the proposed ordinance would also prohibit devices fixed to the dashboard.

“There was concern that the language initially written … would include GPS units,” Rapundalo said. “So we did a lot of refining of the language to ensure that it was clear.”