Bigger threat: Driving while phoning or legislating without thinking?

Laws that bar drivers from talking on cell phones may not cover the fastest-growing diversion: texting.

Forget about whether these laws “cover” texting. Even if they do, good luck enforcing such a ban:

Punching in short text messages on a cell phone keypad is far more distracting and increasingly common. It’s also much harder for authorities to catch. Texters, for example, can hold phones in their laps and text rather than put them to their ears. “It’s difficult for police officers to see that,” said Brooklyn Patrolman Richard Hovan, whose city has a ban on talking on cell phones while driving. Text messaging is largely used by the often-connected professionals, who pledge allegiance to BlackBerry handhelds, and the very young. … More than a third of teen drivers consider sending text messages the most distracting thing they do while driving, according to a recent study by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions, which campaigns against drunken driving. That’s ahead of having friends in the car and talking on the phone.

What this article ignores is whether bans against using cell phones are doing more harm than good. Flashback: Don Boudreaux spots an unintended consequence of a DC driving-while-phoning ban:

[My student Carol Shin] reports that, since DC’s prohibition went into effect this past summer, she and her friends — when driving in DC — in fact spend less time chatting with each other by cell phone, but spend more time text-messaging each other.

Maybe it would be better to let Carol and Ashley just talk on the phone:

Ashley Mabry, a 16-year-old who attends Midpark High School, said she texts on her phone more than she talks on it. She once texted a whole conversation while driving, while other times she responds with a simple “yes,” “no” or “maybe.”

Reminds me of an AEI-Brookings study which noted other unintended consequences: If drivers cannot call ahead and say they will be late, they may speed. If drivers cannot call for directions, they may choose to read a map while driving. If they cannot save time by calling and driving, they may save time by eating and driving. Possibly related: Smarter Car Technology Being Ignored