In The Pipeline: Texting vs. drinking: Aren't they the same?

Huntington Beach, back in the news again.

From the Los Angeles Times: "Huntington Beach is considering a new tactic in its crusade against drunk driving: public shaming on Facebook. Councilman Devin Dwyer asked police Monday during a City Council meeting if they would be willing to post the names of people arrested for drunk driving on the city's Facebook page, because the local newspaper has stopped publishing the listings. 'I didn't think public shaming for driving under the influence was such a bad idea,' Dwyer said. 'I would use any tool necessary to bring down the numbers of drunk drivers.'"

From 89.3, KPCC public radio: "From tar-and-featherings and the stockades to websites like dontdatehimgirl.com and Las Vegas newspapers, public shaming is nothing new, but now the city of Huntington Beach may be taking the humiliation to new social media extremes."

Even a Drudge Report headline: "City to shame drunk drivers on Facebook"

Wow. Fresh on the heels of the national attention received for the (now dropped) idea of charging out-of-towners for at-fault car crashes comes this.

I was always a little torn about the DUI arrests being in the paper. For me, if the names were posted after a conviction versus after merely being arrested, it seems like it would be fairer. Also, with more information about the specific event/driver in question — was it a first-time offense? Or a fourth? What was the blood count? Are we talking habitually a drunk driver or someone who had an extra half glass of wine? There's a huge range to consider in DUI offenses.

Is it "scarlet lettering"? Perhaps a bit. But convicted drunk drivers pose a threat to the public — these crimes occur on city streets — so why can't we know about these people?

As far as shaming people, I think that's the wrong mindset. The public humiliation angle, for me, takes a backseat to simply creating public awareness about people who pose a public risk. It's the thinking behind the websites that publish information on sex offenders and child molesters; it's not to shame the convicted predators, it's to warn innocent people at large.

I'd say the same thing applies to this Facebook idea. Once convictions are in, what's the big deal? It's a matter of public record anyway for whoever wants to look it up.

But I'd like to make another suggestion based on other vehicular crimes I see at least 10 to 20 times a day: texting and cell-phone use. Since the laws were passed banning these things, it seems as if many have not received the memo.

Or more likely, they simply consider themselves above the law.

Consider some facts: In 2008, about 6,000 people were killed nationally due to driver distractions, and more than 500,000 were injured in crashes directly related to driver distraction. Additionally, four out of every five accidents are attributed to distracted drivers. In contrast, drunk drivers account for roughly one out of three accidents.

KTLA.com reports that studies show driving while texting is more dangerous than driving under the influence. A recent first-of-its-kind California survey by the state Office of Traffic Safety revealed that about one in three drivers talked on a handheld cell phone while driving in the last month, and one in five continues to text or send e-mails while driving.

CNBC and Car and Driver magazine recently experimented with the differences between drunk driving and texting. According to their results, "Unimpaired drivers on average took .54 seconds to brake. Four feet were added to the braking distance of a legally drunk driver, while a staggering 70 feet were added to the braking distance of a texter."

And a just-released British study showed that talking on a mobile phone while driving is more hazardous than operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

The evidence continues to pile up. Texting and cell phone use is at least as dangerous, and in many cases is statistically more dangerous than drunk driving. So where is the outrage? If you saw someone guzzling whiskey behind the wheel, would you call the cops? Yet what do you think when you see someone texting or talking on their cell phone?

Memo to city officials: Want to make real national news? Become the place that won't tolerate distracted driving. Come down hard on this problem because it is real. Why wait for more senseless, innocent deaths because of someone texting while they drive?

Write as many tickets as you can, hike the fines as high as the law will allow, then post the conviction results on Facebook and wherever else you'd like. Lead the way. Send a message.

Sure, you'll get hate mail, the media will mock you and some of the public (no doubt those who text and use handheld cell phones) will be outraged. But so what? You'll be saving lives and curbing a national distraction that's become so pervasive even the president of the United States jokes about his BlackBerry addiction.

Next time you're behind the wheel in Huntington Beach, pay attention to the cars around you. See how many texters and cell phone users you notice. Then picture them pounding a six-pack instead.

Would that bother you?

I'm guessing it would.

Wishing you and your family a warm, happy and safe Thanksgiving.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at chris@chrisepting.com.

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