Text messaging has emerged as the worst of the many driving hazards. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia already ban it. Now Congress has a proposal to force the other states to outlaw the practice. The question arises whether laws are enough.
What makes texting so dangerous is that it takes the eyes off the road for the few seconds it can take to smash into the car ahead, or, as in a recent accident, a house and swimming pool. And it usually requires the use of both hands, which would be better occupied with the steering wheel, turn signal, the windshield wiper and, for some, the stick shift.
Above all, the obsession with keeping in constant contact has turned text messaging into an addictive reflex. Some teenagers consider any delay in replying to a text message as insult or a sign of not being “with it.” Texting soared from 9.6 billion messages a month in December 2005 to 110.4 billion in December 2008, according to Car and Driver magazine.
Driver distraction accounts for 80 percent of all vehicle crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Text messaging while driving is the worst distraction of all, according to a recent study by Students Against Destructive Decisions and Liberty Mutual Insurance Group. The study said that texting while driving is “becoming as dangerous as drinking and driving.”
Several tests in vehicle simulators have shown that text messaging impairs a driver’s performance. Car and Driver’s June issue reported a recent road test. It checked on both a younger and an older driver at speeds of 35 and 70 mph. When a red windshield light went on, both drivers took substantially more time to hit the brakes when texting than when not. The elder driver, 37 years old, took an extra 90 to 319 feet to stop when texting. Both drivers did somewhat better after drinking several vodka-and-orange-juice screwdrivers than when texting.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced a bill on July 29 that would force states to outlaw messaging in vehicles within two years or risk losing 25 percent of their annual federal highway money. He cited a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of commercial truck drivers that showed texting drivers to be 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or near miss.
Maine’s law banning texting while driving takes effect Sept. 12.
Car and Driver rightly warned that the laws banning texting would be difficult to enforce. Teenagers are adept at hiding their texting in school classes. People of all ages think they are better than they are at the current rage for multitasking. Behavior must be changed. And driving must once again become a single-tasking matter.