Several states are using the busy Independence Day weekend to spotlight a dangerous increase in cellphone use while driving.
Cellphone use – especially texting – has become so ingrained in society that far too many people ignore laws banning the practice. A 2008 study by the mobile industry’s trade association CTIA found that among teens ages 13 to 19, 57 percent view their cellphones as key to their social life, and most view texting as a vital feature.
Yet to mix this activity with driving is statistically extremely dangerous.
The California Highway Patrol released a report Wednesday showing that talking on a cellphone while behind the wheel is the leading factor contributing to crashes blamed on inattentive drivers. Furthermore, the US Department of Transportation reports that distracted driving played a role in nearly 6,000 deaths and 500,000 injuries in 2009.
The key to reversing the trend is education about the danger, say several experts. Physiologically, there are three different kinds of distraction, say experts: visual (taking eyes off the road), manual (taking one or more hands off the wheel), and cognitive (mental attention.) Texting involves all three, which a July 2009 study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows increases the risk of a crash 23.2 times higher than non-distracted driving – higher than driving while intoxicated.
“That is a recipe for danger,” says Bob Petrancosta, the VP of Safety for Con-way Freight, a subsidiary of Con-way Inc. “The message needs to be communicated across society … and if [it] were really understood, maybe we would have a chance to stem the problem.” [Editor's note: The original version has been edited to clarify Mr. Petrancosta's affiliation.]
But cellphone use – particularly texting – has become attitudinal and built-in, studies show.
The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project reports that text messaging has become the preferred method of communication for American teenagers, with one in three teens sending more than 100 texts a day. The same study found that 26 percent of US teens admit to texting while driving. And the National Safety Council announced in January of this year that nearly 30 percent of all auto accidents were primarily caused by using a cellphone while driving.
"We’re now a mobile society," says Chicago attorney Howard Ankin. "Everyone wants to use their phone while driving and not be stuck and unproductive in traffic. Most people think the people who get in accidents while using a cellphone is the other guy, not them," he says.
“In congested cities across California, where the commuters can spend hours in traffic, using a cellphone to send a text or email can seem harmless,” says Reza Torkzadeh, a personal injury lawyer and author of “Accidents Happen But Who’s Going to Pay the Bills?” She says studies have shown 8 out of 10 drivers support some type of restriction or ban on mobile device usage while driving.
Since California's hands-free law took effect two years ago, banning cellphone use behind the wheel, California has issued an estimated 500,000 tickets to drivers ignoring the law. Nationwide, 28 states and the district of Columbia ban text messaging behind the wheel, and nine states prohibit texting by novice drivers. Six new texting-while-driving bans will go into effect in July.
But many in law enforcement want stronger penalties and deterrents and more tools for enforcement.
“I would appreciate stricter laws," says Colonel Brendan Doherty of the Rhode Island State Police. "We need search warrant capability so when we are researching an accident, we can find out if one or more of the drivers was texting at the time of the accident," he says. Rhode Island prohibits texting but not cellphone use, which makes enforcement problematic, he says.
One bright spot is that there are a host of technological advances making their way into the marketplace, says experts.
Coinciding with the holiday weekend, Iconosys Inc., a mobile app maker, has announced several applications that can send automatic responses to text senders.
“It has become commonplace among youth that when they can’t immediately text back to a received message, they feel like the sender will feel ignored,” says Iconosys president Wayne Irving II. His company's applications – some free – are capable of sending messages that say, “I’m driving a car now. When I can pull over, I will call you back.” Some are even cued automatically by satellite technology that shows when the cellphone is in motion.
“We are trying to develop these for youth who want to be cool but also don’t want parents and bosses being able to snoop too much over their shoulders,
says Mr. Irving.