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Stop text messaging, drivers urged

Large Truck Accidents | Featured Articles

June 13 2007 - Stop text messaging, drivers urged

Washington is first state to ban driving while texting; more states may follow

Some drivers steer with their pinkies while their thumbs do the typing. Others use their knees to guide them on the road, freeing their hands to tap out a quick e-mail.

New Jersey Assemblyman Paul Moriarty has seen drivers using both methods to send or read text messages from behind the wheel. It’s bad enough that Americans eat, apply makeup or shave in their cars, Moriarty said. Now, some drivers have turned these 2,800-pound machines—hurtling down the highway at 65 mph—into home offices.

Democratic and Republican legislators across the country, including Moriarty, say these extreme multitaskers have gone too far.

This year, nine states have considered legislation specifically banning driving while texting, or DWT. Washington became the first state to pass a law, which takes effect in January, making DWT a crime with a $101 fine.

“These devices are addictive, and people are not realizing that their behavior is dangerous,” said Moriarty, a Democrat whose 11-year-old daughter once chastised him for checking his BlackBerry while stopped at a red light.

The efforts in five of the states—Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Tennessee—died with critics either pointing to a lack of crash data linked to the practice or calling the legislation unnecessary because of reckless driving standards already on the books. Bills pending in New Jersey, New York, Oregon and California still have a chance. The East Coast measures ban all drivers from sending electronic messages while driving. California’s legislation targets drivers younger than 18.

It became an easy sell to Washington’s legislators after a 53-year-old male driver checking his e-mail caused a five-car pileup on Interstate 5 outside Seattle in December, said Rep. Joyce McDonald, a Republican.

“I was able to use that accident and show it wasn’t just young people doing this,” McDonald said.

More than 158 billion text messages were sent in the USA in 2006, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association.

Multitasking has become the norm in busy Americans’ lives, and employees sense it could be bad if they’re out of touch for an extended period of time, said Robert Thompson, director of a pop culture center at Syracuse University.

The country’s Puritan work ethic calls for making use of a 20-minute commute to cross something off either a work or home to-do list, Thompson said. In addition, checking e-mail is an obsession for many.

“That little symbol showing that you’ve got mail is an unbelievably delicious proposition,” Thompson said.

“It’s like not opening a Christmas gift. You know most are going to be things you didn’t want ... but you never know,” he said.

Thompson believes the legislation could have some impact because the majority of people don’t want to break the law.

CTIA and wireless companies haven’t opposed the bans, but they’re calling for broader legislation against distracted driving and more education.

Sprint Nextel launched an education campaign aimed at teens that highlights distractions ranging from applying lipstick to eating fast food and talking on a cellphone. Spokesman John Taylor said there is no evidence the laws being considered will change driver behavior. In states with laws against using handheld cellphones, drivers continue to talk with phones held up to their ears, Taylor said.

“Should we be passing laws that restrict behavior that hasn’t been proven a problem yet?” Taylor added. “This is an interesting public policy approach.”

Research showing whether texting while driving causes accidents won’t be available for a few years, said Charlie Klauer, senior researcher at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Existing data, however, show driver inattention is the leading factor in most crashes and near-crashes, she said. And texting involves taking a driver’s eyes off the road, she said.

In a 2006 joint report issued with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the institute found 78% of crashes involved a driver distracted within three seconds before an accident. Talking on or dialing a cellphone accounted for 6% of crashes or near-misses.

“If a driver’s eyes are away from the roadway for two seconds or more in a six-second window, their risk of being involved in a crash is two times higher than an alert driver,” Klauer said.

It’s simply human nature to know something is dangerous but to believe one can handle it better than others, said James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communications at Rutgers University.

Car manufacturers have succeeded, too well, in making cars feel safe and comfortable, Katz said. People aren’t concerned about doing small tasks, creating an opening for texting.

“We’ll probably look back some day and say this was the good old days,” Katz said. “There are more dangerous distractions to come—watching TV on your cellphone. Then, in the ... future, we’ll have cars that drive themselves so we can safely text to our heart’s content.”

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