Don't 'text' and drive

The possible implication of text-messaging in a fatal car crash in New York raises an urgent issue.

Recently I pulled up to the traffic light at the intersection near my home. As I waited for the light to change, I glanced over at the car next to me. The young driver wasn't paying any attention to the light – instead, she was madly text-messaging on her cellphone. I thought once the signal changed she would stop, but no, she continued to text one-handed as she drove off.

She's not the only one risking her life and yours. A recent survey by Zogby International found that two-thirds of drivers ages 18 to 24 use their cellphones to text-message while driving.

It makes me want to stay inside and never go out on the road again, ever.

Many young people seem to love text-messaging – anywhere, anytime. But there's growing concern that "anywhere, anytime" could lead to some serious, if not deadly, consequences.

Police say text-messaging could have played a role in a crash in June near Rochester, N.Y., that killed five recent high school graduates. The Buffalo (N.Y.) News reports that seconds before the crash, the driver's cellphone received a text message – and the sender received a response.

Police don't know if the driver was the one who responded to the text message. They say driver inexperience, a dangerous passing maneuver, and speed were factors in the crash.

You might yell, "There oughta be a law!" There are – a few. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws, and 15 others are considering it. California's Assembly, for instance, recently passed a law that prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from using laptop computers, cellphones, pagers, or any other text-messaging device while driving. (I don't want to even think about a 16-year-old using a laptop while doing 60 miles an hour.) It's an open question as to how much laws will help.

It's going to be hard to get teen­agers to stop using technology in the car when everyone over the age of 18 can still zoom down the highway, texting the miles away. (Remember, the Zogby poll says two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds are doing it.) And last time I checked, telling the difference between an 18-year-old and a 17-year-old teenager is not an exact science. It's also pretty easy for a teen to keep the cellphone out of sight while texting in a car.

Critics of the California law say that the government has no place teaching kids how to drive, that it's a job for parents. Personally, I see it as a bit of both. Parents, for sure, need to tell their kids, "no texting while driving." And if they catch them doing it, take away the keys to the car for a time. But parents aren't always around, and the idea that the police might actually take away the license for a long period of time could help reduce the number of kids doing this.

In New York, where the law says you can only use a cellphone while driving if you have a hands-free device, authorities say very few people obey it anymore. One self-admitted offender interviewed recently in a New York paper described it as being like "a jaywalking law." The law certainly didn't keep cellphone use from becoming a possible factor in the Buffalo crash.

Assemblyman Felix Ortiz of Brooklyn, who wrote the New York law, says enough is enough. He wants to pass a total ban on using cellphones while driving – including hands-free devices – unless it's an emergency.

But it's going to be a tough slog because text-messaging (which has for years been a big hit in Asia and Europe and has finally hit the US) is so popular among teens. They aren't just texting while driving – they are texting while doing everything.

I got a taste of how pervasive the text-messaging phenomenon among teenagers has become as I stood in line to buy groceries recently. The young man who was bagging the purchases was only using one hand – and with the other, he was furiously texting on his cellphone.

When it was my turn, I asked him to put away the phone and focus on my groceries. He mumbled "OK" and stowed his phone, but I noticed that he pulled it out again as soon as I walked away.

Was that a fluke? A clerk in my local drugstore was sending a text message as he rang up my purchases over the weekend.

There's a debate in Maryland about banning cellphones from schools because kids were using them to text answers to each other during tests – much more effective than slipping pieces of paper to each other.

Obviously, that kind of multitasking becomes dangerous behind the wheel. As Joe Gandelman notes at the Moderate Voice blog about the New York crash, "the most dreaded person on the road is now the person with the cellphone."

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