Distracted driving laws and the crusade against distractions in the car have a history that goes back many years. Generally, the trend has been to try to ban each new distraction that comes along, and to seek to place the blame on device makers and automakers for not figuring out how to reliably disable those devices. There was even a ruling in California that made it illegal for a driver to use a mapping app. But now, the state of Colorado has done something unexpected, and perhaps even… reasonable.
The state has made it legal to text while behind the wheel, unless it’s done in a “careless or imprudent manner.” While the new law does give a reprieve to those who use their phones in a safe manner (e.g., while at red light, or stopped in traffic), it also significantly increases the penalties for those who run afoul of the “carelessness” provision. As we’ve written before, there are many potential distractions inside a vehicle, and eliminating them all would be impractical, if not impossible. So this new law puts the focus on the dangerous behavior instead of the potential distraction itself, holding the driver responsible for unsafe actions.
Before now, any text messaging or manual data entry by a motorist was prohibited. “The simple fact is that if you are texting while driving but not being careless, it’s no longer illegal,” said Tim Lane at the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council.
While the change does appear to have support among law enforcement, it is still understandably controversial.
“The focus of the law isn’t for people who are stopped at stop lights or pulled over on the road texting,” said Mike Phibbs, the legislative chair for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. “I think it’s actually helped clarify the issue and targets what’s really causing the problem.”
But officials acknowledge that it is now harder to issue citations to drivers for texting while driving — and that the law opens the door to more legal challenges in court.
There is a reasonable concern that having what amounts to a conditional ban will embolden people to push the limits of what is acceptable behavior, or just make it more likely that people won’t worry as much about texting while driving, since it is now “legal.” However, the hope is that the severity of the penalties for the illegal behavior — even for first time offenders — will make drivers more cautious in how they use their phones. Either way, it’s good to see a focus on actual bad behavior, rather than a broad ban on activity that might be bad, depending on circumstances.