Many adults may recall being told as a teenage driver to "keep your eyes on the road!" It's rule No. 1 of safe driving.
But now that the cellphone texting phenomenon has gone behind the wheel, it's creating a threat to road safety that at least one study shows may be greater than drunk driving.
The study, released last week by Virginia Tech University, analyzed the driving behavior of 203 truck drivers who traveled about 3 million miles equipped with in-cab cameras and other sensors. It found that sending and reading text messages on their phones was by far the most hazardous distraction to the drivers, causing the risk of a crash to be 23 times as high as for a nondistracted driver. The risk of a crash while driving under the influence of alcohol is about seven times as high as with an unimpaired driver, the study added.
The truck drivers spent nearly five seconds at a time with their eyes off the road while texting, the study found. At 55 m.p.h. the truck would have traveled the length of a football field during that time.
Yet Americans' love affair with their cellphones apparently is so strong that it makes them act against their own instincts for self-preservation. Or, put another way, they think they can text while driving but they don't trust the other guy behind the wheel to do it.
Another study, released last week from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, showed that 87 percent of motorists rated text messaging or e-mailing while driving as a very serious threat to their safety. That was just slightly less than their No. 1 concern, drunk drivers (90 percent). But 21 percent also admitted that they have read or sent text messages or e-mail while driving during the past month. And that number was up from about 14 percent the previous year.
In April, the driver of a heavy truck was texting just before he slammed into a school bus in Florida, killing one student. And the problem extends to public transit too. Last September, 25 people were killed in a crash between a commuter train and a freight train in California. The commuter train driver was texting a friend at the time. In May, a subway trolley operator in Boston sent a text message just before his train rear-ended another trolley, injuring dozens of people.
So far, 14 states and the District of Columbia have put laws on the books that ban texting while behind the wheel. Last week four US senators proposed legislation (the ALERT act) that would deny a quarter of federal highway funds – potentially hundreds of millions of dollars – to states that fail to pass such measures. The bans would have to include both private vehicle and public transit drivers.
Some argue that such laws will be hard to enforce, the same problem that exists now with seat-belt laws. But such a law would send a powerful message that texting while driving is dangerous, not only to drivers themselves but to those around them.
A comprehensive ban on talking on a cellphone while driving has failed to gain much traction in the US. The Virginia Tech study shows that dialing phone numbers provides the most distraction, increasing the risk of a crash from 2.8 to 5.9 times as high as for a nondistracted driver.
Still, states should also consider banning all cellphone use by teens while they are driving. That group in particular possesses a dangerous combination of the least experience behind the wheel and a high propensity to be constantly on their phones.