This editorial was first published in the (Middletown) Times Herald-Record, a fellow Gatehouse Media publication. Guest editorials don't necessarily reflect the Daily Messenger's opinions.
While we wait for technology to solve the distracted driving dilemma, we can only hope that somebody is going to go all out and enforce the laws.
For a while this month, that is what happened.
From April 6-10, as part of Distracted Driving Awareness Month in New York, state troopers handed out more than 15,000 tickets. Only 2,000 were for texting and other ill-advised behind-the-wheel activities. Most drivers were pulled over for speeding.
This might seem to be good news for those interested in traffic safety, those who understand that all of the advances we made by being forced to invest in safer cars and safer roads are being quickly eroded, but the truth is that this crackdown was a failure.
The year before, troopers issued 3,000 more tickets.
Gas prices are low. There are at least as many cars on the road this year as there were last year. And while there are no reliable estimates as to why the number of tickets declined, one good possibility is that we have become better lawbreakers, more adept at hiding the distractions that at one time might have been visible.
Each time the state ramps up enforcement, police and politicians reinforce their warnings, noting that distracted driving is just as dangerous as drunken driving. In fact, it might be more dangerous because far more people are likely to be driving a car when a beep indicates an incoming text than are likely to have a Bloody Mary or three at breakfast, at least on weekdays.
Preliminary numbers for last year illustrate the carnage, with the National Safety Council estimating that 40,000 died in crashes in 2016 — a 6-percent increase from the year before and on pace for a 14-percent increase over two years — the largest such increase in more than five decades, or to put it another way, since we learned how to make cars safe.
What we still cannot make safe are drivers. Worse yet, we really have no idea how unsafe people are behind the wheel. The only estimates come from surveys in which people are asked to confess anonymously how often they text or otherwise pay attention to their smartphones rather than the road.
Those looking for comfort can find some in all of the talk about driverless cars, the technology that someday will be as common as an automatic transmission and that will bring the reliability and efficiency of automation to something we now treat more like an art than a science.
In the meantime, we are likely to see more increases in injuries and deaths. In addition to the deaths in the preliminary statistics, the council reported that 4.6 million people were seriously injured in crashes and property damage rose 12 percent from the year before to a record $432 billion.
We already have limitations on navigation systems that prevent drivers from changing settings while the car is in motion. While we wait for robotic cars, it would not take much engineering to extend restrictions to phones, a change that, while not foolproof, would reach more drivers than occasional and incomplete enforcement crackdowns.