Message still unclear to some

In 1969 the rate of traffic fatalities in the United States was 26.4 per 100,000 persons. This number had never been higher, and thankfully, has never been that high since. The rate of traffic fatalities in 2011 was approximately 10.4 per 100,000 persons. In order to find a rate lower than the 2011 number, you would have to go back to 1918 — a time during which automobile ownership was still something of a newfangled novelty.

Our return to the lowest rate of traffic deaths in nearly a century is attributable to a number of factors. First and foremost, the decline is attributable to the intrusion of “big government” regulations mandating things like seat belts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, laminated safety glass… as well as standards for vehicular lighting, crumple zones and a host of other life-saving technologies.

Collateral to this, our nation’s roadways are engineered to a much safer standard. Even a few decades ago, if a Pine Bluff resident wanted to make the trek to Little Rock, the journey involved the hilly, curvy, uneven and irregular State Highway 65 (now Highway 365). After many improvements, the old road still has spots where water pools and any nighttime traverse is one that should be made slowly.

Contrast that with the relatively flat and straight Interstate 530. Bumpy as the highway is, it’s leaps ahead of the one it replaced.

The third prong of the reduced fatality triad is more comprehensive traffic safety laws. For one thing, everybody behind the wheel must have a valid driver’s license and liability insurance. Often they don’t, but that’s the law. Problems like drunk or impaired driving get a lot more law enforcement attention than they once did. Child safety seats are now required — although you might not know it watching some of the traffic in Pine Bluff.

In short, there are a host of regulations that can now be brought to bear for individuals who flout safety.

Just as our cars and roads have become more safe, other technologies have intruded to present new dangers. A recent study published in the journal, Accident Analysis and Prevention, observes, “70 percent of… young adult drivers surveyed report initiating texts while driving, while higher numbers reply to texts (81 percent) and read texts (92 percent) while driving. Additional drivers also report doing these behaviors, but only while stopped in traffic, showing only 2 percent never text and drive under any circumstances.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation reports 3,000 people were killed last year due to someone texting and driving.

As the DOT observes, “Texting is the most alarming distraction because it involves manual, visual, and cognitive distraction simultaneously. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded.”

Even though many states — Arkansas among them — have laws designed to prevent texting while driving, they are very difficult to enforce. Ronnie Burk, chief of the Arkansas Highway Police, said enforcement is tough because often the officer can’t tell if the person is simply using their phone or texting.

That fact notwithstanding, Rep David Fielding, D-Magnolia, has drafted a bill that would double the fine for first-offense texting and driving to up to $200 and suspend an offender’s driving privileges for 30 days. Penalties for second and third offenses would become much more harsh.

Well intentioned as Fielding appears to be, this is one more case where lawmakers lack the wisdom to do what really needs done — a complete ban on holding any kind of mobile communication device while driving. This is the only approach with broad efficacy. Science confirms it. The American public motored happily for a long time without the ability to make phone calls, send text messages or read emails. If we stop most of that now, we might live long enough to travel a few more miles.