In the last session of the Iowa State Legislature, Senate File 234 was signed into law, moving texting and driving from a secondary offense to a primary offense. While no doubt well-intentioned, this legislation represents just the latest example of the danger of emotionally driven legislation.
Of course, Iowa isn’t the only state that has made texting and driving a primary offense: California, Alaska, North Dakota, and several other states have already taken the same step. Most other states have it listed as some sort of secondary offense.
It’s easy to see why this sort of legislation is put into place; after all, texting drivers kill people every single year, and it’s a dangerous trend. Yet, in making texting and driving a primary offense, lawmakers are acting on emotion and failing to reason through the problematic consequences of such a law.
Here are the three most obvious reasons why it’s a terrible idea to make texting and driving a primary offense:
1.) Enforceability is extremely difficult.
Bills such as this apply to texting. They don’t apply to using your GPS, changing your music, or making a phone call. In fact, it doesn’t even apply to using social media while driving. The scope of enforcement is extremely small.
On top of that, by making texting and driving a primary offense, lawmakers are now asking police to start specifically looking for something that is difficult to catch. Most people who text and drive have learned to be sneaky with their phones. Unless they’re going to extreme lengths — like the Iowa State Troopers who are dressing up like construction workers — chances are, most law enforcement will not be able to catch people texting.
2.) It pulls law enforcement and taxpayer money away from more important things.
When state budgets and law enforcement are already spread thin enough, what is the last thing they should be doing? Looking for texting drivers, that’s what.
Even though listing texting and driving as a secondary offense is still not great, at least law enforcement isn’t being asked to specifically waste their time looking for texting drivers under that level of offense.
3.) It sets an awful, and possibly unlawful, precedent.
The final (and subjectively most important) point is that by asking law enforcement to pull over people for suspected texting, lawmakers are setting an extremely dangerous precedent. If a police officer or trooper wants to search your phone, they must get a warrant; it is not legal for them to simply take your phone and look at it. Yet, the lack of general knowledge in the population could lead to them doing just that.
Picture a 16-year-old new driver who gets pulled over because a police officer thinks she was texting, when really, she was checking her GPS. She is already nervous enough as a new driver, and I can guarantee that most teenagers will simply want to clear their name. Most likely, this driver will simply show the police officer her phone, or say something along the lines of, “No, I wasn’t texting! I was just checking my phone’s GPS!”
The scariest part of texting and driving as a primary offense is that it gives law enforcement more power than they should have over the population. Too many people will be unaware that police need a warrant to look at their phone, and even people who do know this may still simply acquiesce in an effort to make the stop short. Allowing police to pull people over for suspected texting sets a dangerous precedent that could quickly become a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Folks, put your phones down and focus on the road. However, if there comes a time when you are pulled over and a police officer wants to look through your phone, make sure to say, “Get a warrant!”