I know the buttons on my phone so well that I can text with my eyes closed. But when I try to multitask while texting or talking on the phone, the results are usually ugly. I tune people out, trip over bumps in the sidewalk and, once, ran right into the black pole separating the two open, double doors at Panera.
But I’m willing to accept my weaknesses. That’s why I rarely talk on the phone or text while driving a car, especially while navigating Ann Arbor, where student pedestrians (including myself) blatantly disregard all traffic laws. Most of my friends regularly type and talk while they drive, though. And one of the first things they say about it is, “I do it, but I know I shouldn’t.”
The Ann Arbor City Council is trying to change that, and it’s about time. On Tuesday, the council passed the first draft of a proposed city ordinance that would make it illegal to text or talk on the phone while driving in Ann Arbor. Of course, this isn’t a novel idea — the state of Michigan is currently in the process of passing legislation that will prohibit texting while driving. But I’m glad to see Ann Arbor has decided the issue of impaired driving is serious enough to take action now instead of waiting for the state’s bureaucracy to take its course.
The proposed Ann Arbor ordinance prohibits both motorists and bicyclists from talking on the phone, listening to voicemail, texting, using the Internet or operating a GPS, unless in an emergency situation. There is one big exception — hands-free devices aren’t included in the ban. That seems like a cop-out, considering multiple studies have shown hands-free devices are no safer than using handheld cell phones. But despite that, the City Council still has the right idea — even if most University students aren’t going to like the law.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, six states and Washington, D.C. currently ban cell phone use while driving, and 19 states and Washington, D.C. ban texting while driving. In both the state of Michigan and in Ann Arbor, similar legislation is long overdue. A New England Journal of Medicine study from February 1997, one of the first studies on the topic, showed that motorists using cell phones while driving were four times more likely to get in a car accident than those who weren’t on their phones. Those findings have only been reinforced over the past 13 years but not without a few shocking addendums — like the fact that driving while on the phone is as statistically dangerous as driving drunk.
But even without those facts, it’s easy to see the dangers of distracted drivers who talk on the phone while navigating campus. In a city like Ann Arbor, with cramped streets and a high population of bikers and walkers, the ordinance should be as unforgiving as possible to discourage the behavior. And in its current form, the proposed legislation will be plenty strict.
In the Ann Arbor ordinance, talking or texting while driving would be a primary offense. That’s a leg up on the state’s version of the bill, where texting while driving is only a secondary offense — the motorists can only be ticketed after they’ve been pulled over for another traffic violation, which makes it hard to take the state’s law seriously.
And the proposed fines for violating the Ann Arbor ordinance are steep, especially for cash-strapped college students — a $125 fine for a standard violation and a $300 fine if the violation resulted in a motor vehicle accident.
The high fines might seem unnecessary, but when students drive in Ann Arbor, we’re often only in the car for five or 10 minutes at a time. It’s not like most of us are commuting or sitting in gridlock, where it might be more understandable to talk on the phone to pass the time. I know that the thought of making a $125 mistake would definitely be enough to make me put the phone away until I got home from Meijer.
Some people may complain that this is just another way for the Ann Arbor Police Department to make easy money handing out tickets. I’m usually in that camp — after all, I often wish our city’s law enforcement had better things to do than ticket cars at 9:45 a.m. for parking in spots that are only free from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. But now it looks like Ann Arbor might be about to crack down on an activity that will finally have more positive effects than just feeding the city’s coffers — and that should be enough to support hanging up our phones before we start our cars.
Courtney Ratkowiak was the Daily’s managing editor in 2009. She can be reached at email@example.com.