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Texting while driving: the new drunk driving

Texting and driving – and gadgets like iPods and GPS devices – are a public safety epidemic.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2009

A women texting on a cell phone while driving on a Los Angeles freeway.

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Jennifer Smith, a Texas real estate agent, remembers when she considered her car an office, her cellphone a professional lifeline. If it rang, she picked it up. If she thought of information to share, she dialed. She knew that it wasn't the best idea to chat while driving, of course, but it wasn't illegal, and she didn't want to lose clients. Besides, she figured, she was careful.

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But then, in September last year, a driver using a cellphone plowed through a red light and slammed into Ms. Smith's mother's mini-SUV. Linda Doyle, who'd been on her way to pick up cat food for the Central Oklahoma Humane Society, where she was a regular volunteer, died the next morning.

During the excruciating months that followed, Smith couldn't shake the feeling that something about the crash didn't make sense. The driver who killed her mother was a sober, churchgoing 20-year-old who'd never even had a speeding ticket. He had been on the phone for less than a minute. Visibility on the road was excellent. But the police report said that when a trooper asked him what color the traffic light had been, the distraught young man responded that he never saw it. He'd crashed into the driver's side of Ms. Doyle's car at nearly 50 m.p.h.; there weren't even skid marks at the scene.

"He's a good kid," Smith says. "He is you and I. He is not just a teenager who doesn't care. I didn't understand how someone like that could just drive through a light without seeing it. So I started researching."

The more she found, the angrier she became. Study upon study showed that talking on a cellphone while driving was far more dangerous than she'd realized – that a driver on a phone had the same reaction speed as someone legally intoxicated, that those talking on a phone behind the wheel are four times as likely to crash, that texting while driving is even more dangerous. And studies repeatedly showed that hands-free headsets – sometimes advertised as safer – were no less dangerous.

"I was just astonished," she says. Soon, Smith joined a growing movement of crash victims' families, academic researchers, and public-safety advocates campaigning against "distracted driving."

This public-safety movement has for years lobbied state legislatures to change driving laws, worked with schools and student groups, and pressured the federal government and industries to set new cellphone regulations. But momentum has picked up recently with some high-profile fatal crashes, including a number involving teens texting while driving. And last month, in what many saw as a coming of age for the movement, the US Department of Transportation hosted a distracted driving summit, where Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood called for action against what he termed a "deadly epidemic."

"Distracted driving is a menace to society. And it seems to be getting worse every year," he said.

But he and others say that the fight against distracted driving could be much harder than other public-safety efforts, including the anti-drunken-driving movement that swept the country in the 1980s.

Far more people talk on their cellphones and use other electronic gadgets in the car than drive drunk, safety officials say. A generation of text-happy teenagers are getting their driver's licenses, and established drivers are increasingly buying smart phones that allow for distracting activity beyond just text-ing and talking – GPS and entertainment devices, too, pull eyes and mental focus off the road.

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