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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.

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At the University of Utah's Applied Cognition Laboratory, Professor Strayer has been testing this do-as-I-say theory for a decade. Using neuroimaging and a drive simulator, he and his colleagues have watched what happens when drivers – including those who claim to be able to text, tweet, and talk safely at the wheel – mix cellphones and cars.

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The results are stark: Almost nobody multiprocesses the way they think they can. For 98 percent of the population, regardless of age, the likelihood of a crash while on a cellphone increases fourfold; the reaction to simulated traffic lights, pedestrians, and vehicles is comparable to that of someone legally intoxicated.

Although some critics claim that the simulator isn't real enough, studies of real-life driving in Canada and Australia had similar findings.

Strayer also found little difference between those using hand-held cellphones and those on hands-free headsets. The disruption, he says, is cognitive. Unlike a conversation with a passenger sharing the same physical space of the car, the electronic conversation takes a driver into a virtual space away from the road.

"We record brain activity," Strayer says, "and we can show that it's suppressed from the cellphone conversation."

BUT WHERE, CELLPHONE PROPONENTS ASK, are the crashes? While the number of cellphone subscribers has rocketed to 270 million in the US – the number of auto fatalities has remained stable, at about 40,000 deaths a year. The US Department of Transportation estimates that 6,000 of those are the result of distracted driving, but it has no specific statistics for phone-related deaths. The number of crashes has also remained steady.

"There have been some suggestions by researchers that the risk [of crash] is increased exponentially due to talking on the cellphone," says John Walls, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents the cellphone industry. "Yet, for whatever reason, we haven't seen that play out in the number of accidents that occur. Although I would never suggest that that means to talk more in the car."

He says that his group does not take a stance on phoning-while-driving legislation.

"This is one of the key questions we're trying to unravel," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Mr. Rader says his group is studying how much the fatality rate should have dropped, given increased safety measures – such as better road construction and improved braking systems – as a way to gauge the real impact of cellphone use.

Another explanation for the statistics, safety experts say, is that people tend to lie about their phone use in crashes. And without a subpoena for cellphone records, there's no way to check. There's often no box on the police report to check if the driver admits cellphone use.

The lack of solid statistics means that advocates are constantly explaining themselves and often face an uphill battle in convincing legislatures to enact new cellphone laws.

But recently, the legislative tide has started to turn – thanks, in large part, to text messaging.

Texting drivers are easy to spot. Like drunken drivers, they're the ones going too slow or too fast, or weaving, says Gregory Massak, the police chief of Shirley, Mass. "They're concentrating more on [the phone] than on driving."

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