Siri Behind the Wheel

Texting-while-driving laws are unclear, inconsistent, and spottily enforced. Here’s how to fix them.

Is this man breaking the law?
Is this man breaking the law?

Photo by Kim Carson/Thinkstock.

One of the most useful functions of Siri, the new iPhone’s speech-recognition feature, is voice-texting: If you’re too busy—or too atrocious at typing—to enter your message on the screen, you can tell Siri what to say and whom to send it to, and off she’ll go.

Apple advertises Siri as a way to get stuff done while you’re otherwise occupied. In its videos, people use Siri while they’re walking and working out. They also use it while they’re driving, which seems sensible. Everyone knows that texting while driving is dangerous (even if a lot of people do it anyway). What’s more, many of us want to control our in-car gadgets by voice. Slate and the audio company Harman recently co-sponsored a survey of “connected consumers”—tech-savvy American adults who own and drive a car. (You can read the full results in this 1.8-megabyte PDF.) When asked how they’d like to interact with technology in their cars, 70 percent said they preferred speech commands over touchscreens, and 80 percent said they’d pay more to get voice-recognition in their vehicles. These numbers likely reflect a safety calculation: If you’ve got to send a message while you’re behind the wheel, dictating seems less deadly than typing.

But as a report by the McClatchy-Tribune wire service points out, voice-texting could be illegal in many places. During the last five years, 34 states have passed laws that ban texting while driving. The laws in each of those states differ widely—some make it illegal to “send” texts, while others prohibit “electronic communication” as well as “reading” texts. Each of these versions would make Siri-based texting verboten, because even if you dictate a message, you’re still, technically, sending some kind of electronic communication (and if you glance at the screen to make sure Siri correctly transcribed your message, you’re reading it).

This is ridiculous. Sure, it’s a good idea to discourage texting behind the wheel. But the laws’ failure to anticipate voice-texting illustrates the larger problem with legal strictures on automotive technology: The laws are narrow, annoyingly arbitrary, and inconsistent across state lines. What’s more, they’re minimally enforced and consequently ineffective—there is no evidence that texting laws have reduced accident rates.

I’ve previously argued that the best way to mitigate the dangers of gadgets in our cars is to add more tech to our vehicles—specifically, systems that warn you or even take the wheel when you’re about to crash. The permanent solution to the problem of texting while driving isn’t to stop people from texting, but to stop them from driving—to replace distractible human drivers with safer robotic chauffeurs. But even though we’ve seen some progress toward this goal—e.g., Google’s self-driving car—it will be a long time before we get rid of human driving. (In the Slate/Harman survey, more than half of respondents said they would use automated driving if it were available.) In the meantime, we should ditch the needlessly complex laws about texting in favor of a set of smarter, more consistent rules that cover all forms of vehicle distractions.

To see how arbitrary these laws can be, let’s look at my home state of California. In 2008, legislators here made it illegal to drive and talk on the phone without using a hands-free headset (for drivers under 18, it’s illegal to talk even with a headset). Then, in 2009, a texting ban went into effect. Specifically, that law says that a driver shall not “write, send, or read a text-based communication,” which it further defines as “using an electronic wireless communications device to manually communicate with any person using a text-based communication, including, but not limited to, communications referred to as a text message, instant message, or electronic mail.” The fine for violating this rule is $20 for the first offense, and $50 for each subsequent offense.

Under this law, I clearly can’t type a message while I’m driving, and I’m not allowed to check my texts or email, either—not even if I’m stuck at a red light. What about using Siri? That seems dubious, too. Technically, asking Siri to transcribe and shoot off a text would still be “sending” a message, so it might be barred. On the other hand, the law does mention “manual communication,” which presumably means typing by hand—so maybe Siri is OK? But on the other other hand, to activate Siri, I have to press a button on my iPhone or my headset. So maybe that’s manual after all.

While the law could be interpreted as coming down too hard on Siri, it leaves many other loopholes through which I can distractedly drive myself to an early death. For instance, it explicitly allows me to dial a phone number while I’m driving (as long as I use a headset to conduct the call). I’m also free to search for an address on my phone’s maps app and look up a song on my iPod. Technically, I could even play a round of Angry Birds while I’m breezing down the freeway (an officer can always stop me for driving unsafely, but like you, I’m a fantastic driver). The most bizarre part of the law is the clause that bars texting “any person”; as the Los Angeles Times pointed out when the law went into effect, this means that it’s not technically a violation to send a text message to a company. Feel free to text your vote for your favorite on American Idol!

This makes no sense. Reading a message at a red light is far less dangerous than looking up an address while I’m actually moving, but California’s law doesn’t make this distinction. The rules in many other states aren’t much better. Massachusetts’ texting law prohibits the use of a phone as a GPS navigator—but it allows you to use a navigation system that’s mounted to your dash. In Vermont, every driver is prohibited from texting, but people under 18 are further enjoined against using other kinds of handheld electronic devices. Adults, though, are free to pull out their Kindles while stuck in traffic.

The worst thing about these laws is their opacity. Because enforcement is spotty—I see people talking into handheld cellphones all the time—and because few of these specific tech questions have been raised in court, nobody knows how we can use our devices. In some ways, the mish-mash of rules makes enforcement more difficult. If you see a guy typing on his phone while driving, should you call the cops? If he’s otherwise driving safely, I wouldn’t—he could just be dialing a number, which is legal.

A better system wouldn’t make distinctions about what we do on our gadgets, but would instead look at the effects of our actions. The best rule would simply say, Don’t do anything in your car that could be unsafe. In 2009, Maine adopted just such a policy. Its law doesn’t make any particular technology illegal in the car. Instead, it bans “distracted driving”—driving while you’re engaged in any task that could impair you. This obviously includes texting, but the law is expansive enough to outlaw other bad driving habits—eating, applying make-up, or reading a roadmap. Theoretically, it could also allow some safer uses of technology, like punching an address into your GPS while you’re stopped, or asking Siri to remind you to call your doctor when you get home.

Some day, we’ll all get robot chauffeurs, and then we can all return to texting, eating, and otherwise goofing off while we drive. Until then, let’s all copy Maine.