Miscellaneous Ramblings

Texting While Driving: A Deadly Epidemic

Charles Moore - 2010.09.27 - Tip Jar

CTV News Washington Bureau Chief Paul Workman reports in Texting and Driving: US Official Calls It 'Epidemic' that US Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood is calling texting while driving an "epidemic" and has made "distracted driving" almost a personal crusade, opening a second annual national summit in Washington, DC, focused on families of victims and their losses.

"The biggest distraction in America today," LaHood is quoted saying "is people thinking they can drive safely with a cellphone in their hand or texting."

Workman observes that LaHood could have substituted Canada for America - or any other nation where cars and trucks and buses have become "unguided missiles" in the hands of talking or texting drivers, noting that 30 American states now have bans on texting and driving or phoning and driving - the problem is enforcement.

It's hard to believe that people can be so tragically stupid and irresponsible, but I have friends who text while driving and get indignant when criticized for doing so.

Cellphone conversation while driving poses nearly the same risks as driving at the legal limit for alcohol.

An Ontario Medical Association report, based on a meta-analysis of studies from around the world. points to the dangers of cellphone use (not only texting) in automobiles, which negatively affects a driver's cognitive function, visual concentration, speed of processing information. and reaction time, putting drivers at significantly greater risk of collision, regardless of whether the device is handsfree or handheld, with cellphone conversation while driving posing nearly the same risks as driving at the legal limit for alcohol.

A study cited by the Coalition for Cellphone-Free Driving says the statistical likelihood of being involved in a motor vehicle accident rises by a factor of four during cellphone use - greater than with low-level alcohol impairment - and slows a driver's reaction time by 18%.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2008 nearly 6,000 people died and more than half a million were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver. More than 20% of crashes that same year involved some type of distraction, such as "texting while driving" (TWD).

American teenage texters reportedly average over 4,000 text messages per month.

Popular infatuation with texting has grown from 4.1 trillion text messages per year in 2008, to more than 1.6 trillion text messages per day in 2010, a phenomenon whose side-effects, such as death and injury due to car accidents, have yet to be fully quantified. American teenage texters reportedly average over 4,000 text messages per month, an intensity bordering on addiction for many, exacerbating the very real dangers of TWD, probably subject to the self-deceptions and rationalizations typical of other addictions.

Driving while intoxicated is almost universally considered socially inappropriate and intolerable, but a growing body of research indicates that DWT could become (and perhaps already has) as bad a public hazard as DWI (if not a worse one) and should be just as socially unacceptable as driving drunk.

Texting while driving is three times more dangerous than driving drunk.

According to a UK Transport Research Laboratory study commissioned by the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, motorists sending text messages while driving are "significantly more impaired" than ones who drive drunk, The study showed texters' reaction times deteriorated by 35% - with a whopping 91% decrease in steering ability - while similar studies of drunk driving indicate reaction times diminishment of a relatively modest 12%. By that measure, DWT is three times more dangerous than DWI, and should logically be treated as severely if not more so, both under the law and in terms of social censure.

However, there is an apparent disconnect between public conviction and personal behavior. Reuters reported that while 83% of respondents surveyed nationwide said DWT should be illegal, one-quarter of US cellphone users admit to doing it. In a CTV online poll that accompanied Paul Workman's report, 32% of respondents admitted to having texted while driving.

People still drive while texting at the same rate as a year ago.

A study conducted this year by mobile technology firm Vingo found some of the worst DWT offenders living in states where DWT is already banned or ban legislation is pending. In Tennessee, an alarming 42% of drivers surveyed admitted to DWT, compared with a slightly less horrific 26% of cellphone users nationwide. Vingo found 66% of drivers aged 16 to 19 - already the least experienced and most crash-prone cohort - admitted to driving while texting, and despite more states enacting bans and increased public awareness of high-profile accidents, people still drive while texting at the same rate as a year ago.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, automobile accidents are now the leading cause of death in women under the age of 35 - another cellphone-prolific, texting-oriented demographic.

Driving while texting is 50% more dangerous than talking on your phone while driving.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that using cellphones - even handsfree units in voice mode - increases crash risk fourfold, and texting - which distracts visually, physically, and cognitively - increases risk six-fold. The US National Safety Council advocates banning all cellphone use by automobile operators, advising that the prudent course is to turn the ringer off and stash the phone somewhere out of reach before turning the ignition key.

Parents also need to get on the case. A survey by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance Group found 52% of teens who say their parents would be unlikely to punish them for driving while texting said they would continue doing so, compared with 36% who believe their parents would penalize them.

Veteran automotive journalist and humorist Peter Egan tackled this serious topic in a March 2010 Road & Track Magazine column entitled Hang Up and Drive, relating how he and his wife narrowly escaped disaster on a Sunday morning motorcycle ride when, deciding to take the scenic route home, he slowed to enter a side road just as a young woman cruised through its stop sign without slowing, blabbering on her cellphone, gazing in the other direction, oblivious to the oncoming bike and its two riders.

"If I hadn't already backed off the throttle and started braking," Peter relates, "she would have killed us."

Egan also cites driving with a friend who insisted on simultaneously talking on his cellphone while typing in a new destination into his GPS, cutting off a merging gasoline tanker, and responding to the truck driver's angry horn blast by lifting his "free" hand off the steering wheel and shaking his fist, phone cradled against shoulder. Egan says aside from that minor flaw, his friend is really a great guy (sort of like a few drunks he's known).

Cellphone use while driving causes impairment equal to driving with 0.08% blood-alcohol levels.

This is not an idle analogy. University of Utah studies in 2005 and 2006 found drivers talking on cellphones had 18% slower braking response times than motorists focused on driving, concluding that cellphone use while driving causes impairment equal to driving with 0.08% blood-alcohol levels - the legal limit in most states and Canadian provinces. A 2006 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration/Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found 80% of crashes directly linked to driver inattention, with cellphone use topping the distractions list.

Even Oprah Winfrey has weighed in, urging her TV audience to sign pledges not to chat or text from behind the wheel. The US Congress is considering legislation to push all states to ban texting by drivers.

Texting Kills

In September, Iconosys - a tech company that has developed a customizable smartphone autoreply app for texts and calls, SMS Replier, combats what it calls "the growing social epidemic of TWD" (SMS Replier eliminates the need for TWD via a fully customizable auto reply to texts and calls plus other safety features) - hit the road partnered with FocusDriven.org, an advocacy group of the National Safety Council for victims of motor vehicle crashes involving drivers using cellphones, to raise awareness of dangers associated with TWD addiction.

The cross-country "TextKills Tour" of college campuses was to inform and educate about the dangers of Texting While Driving and other driver distractions, and to raise money for FocusDriven.org, including donating $2 from every sale of this special version of SMS Replier over a two-month period to FocusDriven.org. Iconosys also plans to give away 100,000 copies of its software, worth $2,000,000, during the tour, which wound up in Washington, DC, on September 21 at the NHTSA's second National Distracted Driving Summit.

Recently, Mead Research, an independent research firm, picked SMS Replier as a best of breed technological solution to TWD. A copy of Mead's study* can be found online. The SMS Replier app, which is currently available for Android and Windows Mobile but not the iPhone, is available from Iconosys' TextKills.com website.

While some US states and Canadian provinces have banned handheld cellphone use behind the wheel, it seems increasingly clear that a more concentrated effort to combat TWD is needed, including federal legislation. But most importantly, a change in public perception and attitude must take place, making texting while driving as socially taboo as driving while drunk.

* The website requires that your browser have the Adobe Acrobat Plug-in installed. On my Macs running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.5 Leopard, Camino and Firefox will not display it, although Safari and several other browser will. Shame on Mead for making its report incompatible with Firefox (at least on PowerPC Macs) and other alternative browsers that don't have Adobe Acrobat Reader support. dk

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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