Law aimed at teens won’t solve talking while driving problem

Like most stereotypes, the one of teenagers talking endlessly on the phone to friends has its roots in reality. A lot of young people talk, text and tweet seemingly nonstop.

Today, however, there is a dark side to the joy of keeping up with one’s friends’ 24/7 texting, talking or tweeting on a cellphone while driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers (drivers 15 to 20) in America. And mile for mile, the NHSTA says, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers.

Bonnie Raffaele knows all that, and she also knows that, as the NHSTA also reports, a variety of behaviors contribute to those numbers inexperience as a driver, immaturity, speed, drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts and distracted driving, a catchall term for a lot of bad-while-driving habits, including talking on a cell phone, too-loud music, talking to other teens in the car, drowsy driving, eating, etc.

In 2010, Raffaele’s 17-year-old daughter Kelsey Dawn Raffaele was driving home from a friend’s house in Sault Ste. Marie and chatting on her cellphone when she crashed and died.

After nearly two years of lobbying by Bonnie Raffaele, state lawmakers Dec. 14 passed a bill dubbed “Kelsey’s Law” that prohibits young novice drivers from using a cellphone while behind the wheel. Gov. Rick Snyder has said he will likely sign the new law.

Police acknowledge the bill probably won’t have a major practical impact on stopping young people from talking and driving, mostly because it is so hard to determine if a passing motorist is using a phone simply by glancing through the car window.

But Sgt. Chris Hawkins of the Michigan State Police said the bill will allow officers to check anyone they suspect of violating the ban; under most circumstances, he said, they will enforce the law as a “secondary measure” when a driver has been stopped for another reason.

“We’ll see someone speeding by us and notice they’re on their cellphone,” Hawkins said. “We’ll pull them over, and if they’ve got a Level 1 or 2 license, they’ll get the additional citation.” The fine can reach $100 plus court costs.

Hawkins said police hope the deterrent effect will make violations a rarity, just as with the state’s existing ban on sending text messages while driving, which took effect in 2010.

This is all feel-good stuff and Bonnie Raffaele deserves credit for trying to get the word out. She and her husband Ron created a website and Bonnie has spoken at schools as far away as Grand Rapids.

Ultimately, though, what we need is a technical solution to a high-tech problem. There have been distracted drivers since day one, but cell phone use has become almost universal. Teens are hardly the only ones who talk and text while driving and put themselves and others at risk. There are business types for whom the car is a rolling office, and lots of soccer moms use their cells to coordinate the family from behind the wheel. It’s all dangerous.

Car companies need to look seriously for solutions, such as fitting cars with devices that allow only incoming cell calls to hands-free phones and limiting calls to 30 seconds or so, just long enough to pass along an important message or just a “call me when you pull over.”

Efforts to muzzle all cellular communication will go nowhere, but limiting calls by time and by type of device could help. Make it a competition and someone will find a solution.

Until then we can hope people like Bonnie Raffaele keep pushing the message one school or even one teenager at a time, that more and more young people get the message.