Fiddling with your iPhone behind the wheel can get you fined across much of the nation. But many states are more than happy to tweet you with up-to-the-minute directions on how to steer clear of a traffic jam.
It is a mixed signal that some safety experts and politicians say could be dangerous.
At least 22 states that ban texting while driving offer some type of service that allows motorists to get information about traffic tie-ups, road conditions or emergencies via Twitter.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have banned all texting while driving – including Washington – and eight others prohibit texting by younger drivers only, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Some supporters of text-messaging bans say that states that provide traffic information via Twitter are undermining these laws.
“I would guess that the states wouldn’t intend to be sending a mixed message, but it sounds like it could be a mixed message,” said Judie Stone, president of Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
State transportation officials say they are not encouraging people to get online behind the wheel. They say drivers should read their tweets before hitting the road.
In Washington state, for example, where citizens and transportation officials can exchange messages about the latest traffic, the feed includes regular reminders not to use the service while driving. The apparent conflict results from two arms of government with seemingly good intentions: transportation departments that want to help motorists cope with traffic, and legislatures that are worried about the deadly consequences of distracted driving.
While Washington state lets motorists tweet about traffic conditions, in most states the flow of information is one-way – from state officials to drivers. Some Washington users apparently just want to chat.
“Got home, got changed, now heading back to seattle for the Mariners game. Keep the roads clear for me on I90 (at)WSDOT :-),” one user posted in late August. The reply from transit officials? “No promises, but we will do our best :) Enjoy the game!”
That kind of exchange, if conducted by drivers behind the wheel, troubles some safety experts.
“If you’re sitting there and trying to update the world on the congestion you’re in, you could be part of a collision,” said Fairley Mahlum, spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found in July that when truck drivers texted, their risk of a collision was 23 times greater.