The nation's worst commuter rail disaster in four decades – a Metrolink collision with a freight train that killed 25 and injured 135 here Sept. 12 – is spotlighting the issue of the safety of text messaging in an age of hyper-connectivity.
Answers on what caused the accident may be months away but early reports that the engineer had sent text messages in the minute before the crash have put the debate on use of cellphones while driving front and center.
"It's far too early to say that text messaging was the cause of this crash," says Peter Knudson, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. Phone records will have to be examined first, he says. "But since we know that cellphones are a distraction, you can bet that [Web] browsing and texting [via cellphone] will be the next key area of inquiry, not just talking."
California and some other states have already brought in laws to regulate cellphone use while driving, but policymakers have been slower to catch up with the consequences of the recent explosion in text messaging in the US.
About 75 billion SMS text messages were sent in June this year, representing an increase of 160 percent over June 2007, according to the mobile industry's trade association CTIA. That's an average of 2.5 billion messages a day.
Text-messaging is especially popular among young people. A recent survey conducted online by CTIA among teens aged 13-19 found that a majority (57 percent) view their cell phone as key to their social life and most view texting as a vital feature.
Research has shown that talking on a cellphone while driving can be dangerous. Texting is potentially even more unsafe because it requires diverting eyes from the task at hand to the keypad. A simulated driving study by Clemson University last year showed that drivers using iPods and text messaging devices leave their lanes 10 percent more often.
It's not just texting while driving that may pose a risk. Earlier this year, the American College of Emergency Physicians reported that emergency rooms were seeing a rise in injuries from people texting while walking, rollerskating, and jogging. The injuries included twisted ankles, scrapes, bruises, and even a few deaths of people who stepped into traffic, said Dr. Gerry Brogan, president of the New York branch of the association.
Injuries were more common among teens and young adults were more common, the association said.
Tell that to teens, 42 percent of whom say they can text blindfolded, according to the CTIA survey.
The California law requiring hands-free cellphones for motorists that went into effect July 1 does not address the issue of text messaging.
"We wanted to address texting in the law … but it wasn't then the problem it has now become, says State Sen. Joe Simitian (D), who sponsored the ban.
But text messaging is the next target, he says. A second law restricting texting for motorists has already passed the state legislature and awaits Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature.
John Zaimes, a lawyer with experience in transportation law, says the recent train crash is likely to spur employers of all kinds to create more specific rules for their employees as a way of reducing their own liability.
"Besides lawmakers, this [crash] will send waves of concern throughout the employment community addressing the use of Blackberrys and text messaging," says Mr. Zaimes, a lawyer for Reed Smith LLP. "This will be a wake-up call across several industries because in the absence of specific laws, the companies themselves expose themselves to very costly liability."
The on-the-job use of cellphones by public transit drivers made headlines earlier this year when it was erroneously reported that a train operator in a fatal crash on Boston's subway was on her cell phone.
Use of a cellphone by drivers is prohibited under Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority employee rules.
At least 44 public transit drivers in Boston have been punished since January 2006 for talking on their cellphones, according to an Associated Press report.
The MBTA also does not allow operators to read books or magazines, listen to a radio, eat, watch portable televisions or listen to iPods or other music players while on the job.
However, Zaimes says that one problem with enforcing no-texting laws is that law enforcement officers can't see drivers in the act.
"There are practical considerations that need to be addressed with these possible new laws," says Zaimes. "They involve answering the question: How do you prove it?"
•Material from Associated Press was used in this report.