Virtual Reality Gives a Big Boost to Bill to Hike Fines for Texting While Driving
Texting while driving has been cited severally as the root cause for hundreds of thousands of traffic accidents across the country annually, some of them mortal.
Lawmakers are trying to strengthen the legal consequences while also educating people to not look at their phones in their cars in the first place.
Sen. Nicole Poore (D-New Castle) along with some other colleagues put on headsets, headphones and strapped themselves into a virtual reality simulator at Legislative Hall on Tuesday.
The first thing you see in the VR simulation is a first person view of yourself getting into a car, putting it into gear and driving down a suburban street.
As you continue driving in the scenario, you manage to dodge cyclists and you coast through stop signs, all the while continuing to text on your cell phone.
“Now I’ve entered onto I-95 and I’ve almost rear ended a pickup truck. [I haven’t learned my lesson yet], because I’ve just now smooshed my driver to the left of me,” Poore said.
Eventually, you make it to the city center, almost hitting parents pushing their children in strollers until you run a stop sign.
“I have pulled out into an intersection, the airbag has hit me in the face as the glass has shattered around me and I was reading a text message that said, ‘Should we start the meeting without you?’”
The simulator is sponsored by AAA Mid-Atlantic and AT&T in an effort to get teenagers and adults alike to stop texting while they’re driving.
The companies visited A.I. DuPont High School in Wilmington and Legislative Hall with the simulator this week, with AAA Mid-Atlantic lobbying for a bill that doubles fines for drivers caught using their phone.
“It’s a very difficult thing to train young people to not do, unless they’ve seen in a family that there’s accidents – people being hurt, killed or whatever,” House Minority Whip Deborah Hudson (R-Fairthorne), the chief sponsor of the bill, said.
Hudson stresses that the virtual reality simulator connects real life consequences to texting while driving – especially for teenagers.
The response at the school, according to Hudson, was pretty universal.
“They were shocked. They said, ‘I can’t imagine this. I only looked down at my phone for one second,’ but apparently, one second, two seconds, three seconds could be the distance of a football field, and in that time, anything could happen,” she said.
Delaware was the eighth state in the country to ban drivers from using their phones while the car is in motion in 2001. Since then, 46 states have similar bans in place.
The original $50 fine hasn’t been raised since 2001. Now, the bill aims to hike it to $100, although the final amount spent by the defaulter will be much higher than that after factoring in court fees and other charges divvied up among state agencies.
Hudson acknowledges that some people may not be able to pay the fine, but says it’s necessary to help curb the deadly habit.
“There’s a chance it’s too expensive, but it’s a right to drive on the Delaware state roads and you have a responsibility to drive safely,” she said.
The bill has not gotten a committee hearing yet, but Hudson says she’s planning to move it forward later this year.
In 2015, nearly 3,200 people were killed and 431,000 were injured in car accidents involving distracted drivers according to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Gov. Jack Markell (D), who himself is an avid cyclist, says he sees the problem all the time. Seven years ago, one of his friends was killed by a driver who was texting while running.
“I hope [the proposal] goes through and, again, I don’t know if you can have penalties that are high enough when it comes to a bill like this,” Markell said.
He was one of those that sat through the virtual reality simulator, throwing his hands up from time to time, after almost hitting pedestrians or cyclists.
Markell promises to sign the bill no matter how high the fine is set at.
“If we’re the highest in the region, I don’t care. If we’re the highest in the country, I don’t care. I want us to be the safest.”