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You can’t blame the Pokemon Go team for trying. The game, conceived as an Augmented Reality collaboration between Pokemon and Nintendo, and developed by Niantic, was intended to harness the possibilities of Augmented Reality and location-based technologies while also promoting physical activity for the game’s players, by basing gameplay on searching for Pokemon characters in real-world locations.

Released in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States on July 6, 2016, and gradually rolled out in other regions over the rest of 2016 (the latest release was on September 11, 2018 in Russia), it didn’t take long for enterprising gamers and dedicated couch potatoes to figure out that they could more quickly locate their characters by conducting their searches via automobile.

So much for promoting “physical activity.”

It also didn’t take long for drivers who were more intensely focused on searching for Pokemon characters than they were on their own driving to begin racking up more than game points. Within the first few weeks of its release,

A tree “came out of nowhere” and crashed into a Pokemon-playing driver, a drunk driver went for a twofer and crashed while playing, and in two separate and particularly satisfying moments of instant karma, Pokemon players crashed into police cars in Baltimore and Quebec.

If these first instances of human folly were the only toll inflicted by drivers distracted by their search for Pokemon characters, we could almost laugh. But in fact, the resulting toll from drivers distracted by the game they were playing was far more dangerous. Research indicates that in the first 148 days after its initial rollout, Pokemon Go “may have contributed to nearly 150,000 traffic accidents, 256 deaths and economic costs of $2 billion to $7.3 billion.”

It’s an astonishing statistic.

And yet the statistics on texting while driving are even more astonishing. We can’t make a direct comparison, because Pokemon Go was a global phenomenon. And yet in terms of the sheer number of traffic collisions, in 2017, 1.5 million car crashes were caused in the United States by use of a cell phone while driving. Between 2012 and 2018, 9% of all traffic fatalities were the result of texting while driving, and 14% of all distracted driving deaths were the result of cell phone use. In 2018, texting and cell phone crashes in the United States accounted for $129 billion in economic costs.

Let’s take a closer look at just one of those statistics. In 2017, 3,166 people died as a result of all forms of distracted driving (including cell phone use, eating or drinking, talking to passengers, and adjusting the stereo, entertainment system, or navigation system). From the statistics, we can deduce that 443 people died as a result of cell phone use, and of those, 285 of these traffic fatalities were caused by texting while driving.

Related Article: The Truth About Bicycle “Accidents,” Crashes, and Collisions

Extrapolating from the data compiled after the Pokemon Go rollout, the death toll for the first year would have been 624 people, assuming that fatalities continued at the same rate for the first year following the release of the game. While the texting-while-driving fatalities are “only” 46% of the extrapolated toll from Pokemon Go, we have to remember that the Pokemon Go statistics represent data from around the world, while the texting while driving statistics represent data from the United States only.

And yet while we may shake our heads at the obvious foolishness of playing an augmented reality game on our phones while driving, texting while driving has become almost normalized behavior. In a national survey, 36% of drivers between the ages of 18 and 24 admitted that they have texted while driving, while 33% of drivers aged 18-64 have admitted to sending texts and emails while driving—and an astonishing 19% of all drivers admitted to surfing the internet while driving.

Related Article: Driven To Distraction

Of those surveyed, 48% thought that DUI was more dangerous than texting while driving, while another 48% thought that texting while driving is about as dangerous as DUI. However, data indicates that using a cell phone while driving, whether hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reaction time by the same amount as if they had a blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) of .08, which is the legal threshold for a DUI conviction in California. It gets worse—texting while driving is six times more likely to cause a car crash than driving under the influence of intoxicants.

And yet despite these statistics, the State of California treats texting while driving as nothing more serious than a minor traffic violation. In 2012, then-Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have raised the base fine for hand-held cell phone use and texting while driving. This was actually Brown’s second veto of legislation to increase the penalty for distracted driving. In his veto message, Brown said “I believe the current fines…for cellphone use and texting while driving are a powerful deterrent. I have found even a $50 ticket unpleasant enough.”

So what was this “powerful deterrent” Governor Brown was referring to? The fine for a first offense is $20, and $50 for subsequent offenses (additional state and county fees are added on to the fine, so the actual out-of-pocket cost to a driver is in the $200-$300 range). The legislation vetoed by Governor Brown would have added a whopping $10 to the base fine.

Ten dollars.

And after the first offense, drivers would be dinged one point on their driving record for subsequent convictions. The $10 increase in the base fine would have gone towards creating and funding a new distracted driving program at the state Office of Traffic Safety.

But these modest changes to the law were a bridge too far for a Governor who was more concerned about saving texting drivers $10 than he was about putting a dent in the $129 billion in economic costs resulting from crashes caused by cell phone use and texting while driving. And saving hundreds of lives every year? Beyond the pale when there was $10 to be saved.

The contrast with how California treats first offense DUI violations couldn’t be more stark:

  • DUI is a misdemeanor offense
  • Temporary license suspension—30 days
  • Automatic one-year license suspension if you refuse to submit to a chemical test
  • Four-month license suspension if you test over the .08 legal limit
  • DUI education program completion required to reinstate your driving license
  • Mandatory ignition interlock device attached to car to reduce license suspension time
  • $390 to $1,000 in fines, plus penalty assessments
  • A sentence of 2 days to 6 months in jail may be imposed
  • Mandatory 6-month license suspension
  • 3-5 years probation

Those are the consequences for a first DUI conviction that doesn’t result in injury. Subsequent offenses result in more serious penalties, and a DUI with injuries may be charged as a felony, with even stiffer penalties. California has spared no effort in cracking down on impaired driving, with strong enforcement efforts and serious penalties for violations of the law.

Well, some might say that drivers convicted of DUI face stiff penalties because DUI has serious, life-altering or even life-ending consequences for the victims of impaired drivers.

But if that’s true for impaired driving, why isn’t it also true for intentional distractions like texting while driving, or surfing the internet while driving—or even for playing augmented reality games while driving? Why does California treat cell phone use and texting while driving as minor traffic violations? To be convicted of a DUI in California, a driver must have a BAC of .08 or greater. And yet using a cell phone while driving impairs the driver to the same degree as a BAC of .08, and texting while driving is six times more likely to cause a crash than drivers who are DUI. Despite these dangers, texting while driving is just a minor traffic violation in California, subject to a $20 fine for a first offense.

Is it any wonder then, when the State of California is sending the message that texting while driving is no big deal, that one-third of all drivers on the road admit to sending emails and texts while driving?

Continued in Part 2…