How New Mexico is doubling down on distracted driving

When you're behind the wheel, doing any activity that takes your concentration away from your primary task of driving constitutes distracted driving. Such activities can include driving while shaving, fixing your hair or tending to a pet or child.

The most common type of distracted driving--texting--is especially dangerous because it combines the three components that define distracted driving:

  • Taking your hands off the wheel
  • Taking your eyes off the road
  • Taking your mind off of driving

Distracted driving compared to drunk driving

Distracted driving is on the rise across the nation. In 2015, distracted driving accounted for nearly 400,000 injuries and 3,500 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

While incidents of drunk driving have been on a decline in recent years (down 28 percent between 2005 and 2012), the number of distracted drivers spiked by a staggering 650 percent over the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The social stigma attached to drunk driving--as compared to society's relative tolerance of texting while driving--could play a part in these disproportionate statistics. Another factor could be the severe penalties for drunk driving. In New Mexico, drunk drivers face $500-$1,000 in fines and a suspended driver's license for at least one year.

New distracted driving laws

In 2014, New Mexico took action against distracted driving. The state passed a law making it illegal not only to text while driving, but also to look at text messages when stopped at a traffic light. The law also prohibits talking on cell phones while driving, unless the driver is using a hands-free device. The one exception to this ban is emergency situations: if you witness or are involved in an emergency while driving, you're allowed to contact 9-1-1 without pulling over first.

Some proponents of the ban have been critical, however, claiming it isn't having the desired effect of curbing the distracted driving behavior. Some have criticized the low penalties for distracted driving citations--$25 for a first-time infraction and $50 thereafter--as insufficient to effectively discourage distracted driving. Senator Steven Neville pushed a bill earlier this year to increase the fines for violations to $100 for the first offense and $200 for subsequent offenses. The bill passed in the Senate but was stalled in the House.

What do you think? Should distracted driving penalties be more stringent? What else can be done to control the distracted driving epidemic?

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