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Texting: An Unforeseen Epidemic

David Teater never anticipated that mundane cell phone use would kill his 12-year-old son. Teater, since his son’s death, has made it his life’s work to prevent distracted driving. In 2004, a young woman ran a red light and hit the car in which his wife and son were riding.

Texting while driving, the drunken driving of the 21st Century, is a modern epidemic hitting American roadways. In fact, the Transport Research Laboratory found that the reaction times of drivers who send text messages while driving deteriorated by 35 percent. This is far worse than drunk drivers, who were 12 percent slower, and those impaired by marijuana that were 21 percent slower.

‘We take for granted that driving a car is an extremely difficult task, and that it’s the number one cause for death between the ages of one and 35,’ said Teater, now the Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives for the National Safety Council.’ The woman who killed Teater’s son is not the only person texting while driving. A study conducted by Nationwide indicates that 39 percent of people under the age of 30 admit to sending text messages while driving, while 19 percent confess across all age groups.

The rise of modern technology is bringing with it an unanticipated companion: a surge in deaths. Experts agree that for many, texting has become both an obsession and addiction in modern society, as laws in place are clearly not being heeded. These addictions, fueled by societal pressures to be consistently ‘in touch,’ contribute to approximately 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries a year, as a result of cell phone use while driving.

In the first half of 2009 alone, according to Nationwide Insurance, there were 740 billion text messages sent — double the amount of that in 2008. This has proven to be a serious problem, according to Tamyra Price, associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at California State University Fresno.

Price was one of 300 representatives who were invited to the Distracted Driving Summit by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in Washington, D.C. earlier this fall. The summit included not only academic representatives like Price, but also transportation officials, safety advocates, and law enforcement officials.
Families who had lost a loved one at the hands of a preoccupied driver told their stories at the Summit. ‘There have been 6,000 deaths and 500,000 injuries as a result of distracted driving,’ Price said, somberly.

Price, who admittedly was once almost run off the road because of a texter, has since focused her research solely on texting while driving. Her findings have indicated that despite texting and driving being illegal in 14 states, laws are not resonating with the general American public. In Price’s most recent study surveying 409 college students, she found that 84 percent said they still text while driving, up from about 62 percent two years ago, when it was legal.

Price’s research indicates that the laws are not being heeded, especially in the younger population. ‘My data was truly startling,’ Price said. ‘A third said they almost hit something while texting, 21 percent had missed a turn, and 8 percent had run off the road,’ she stated.

Other academics agree that texting while driving is gravely dangerous, even referring to it as a perfect storm. ‘It’s really a combination of things that all add up to be one of the most dangerous things you can do while you’re driving,’ said John D. Lee, professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, who has done extensive research on technology and teen drivers.

‘In terms of the distraction, there are intense visual, motor, cognitive demands that affect the degree of engagement.’
In addition to these demands, brain resources are drastically reduced during cell phone use, according to research done by Carnegie Mellon University. ‘Brain activity associated with driving decreased by 37 percent during cell phone use,’ said Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. ‘You’re depriving the brain from critical information. There will be visual activation from the sight of your cell phone, but it will no longer be associated with driving.’

However, while research on texting while driving has been surfacing in the recent years, some believe that that the problem is obvious.

Bill Windsor, associate vice president of safety at Nationwide Insurance, noted how texting while driving has ‘mushroomed’ within the past few years. ‘The American public really feels the need to stay connected at all times,’ Windsor said, emphasizing the social pressure to stay connected, even witnessing it in his own children. ‘But, if you’re doing 60mph and taking your eyes off the road for 30 seconds, that’s the equivalent of driving the length of a football field with your eyes off the road.’

Windsor said drivers are becoming overconfident in their abilities and losing their common sense at the wheel. He emphasized that additional research isn’t necessary to prove it’s dangerous. ‘It is a combination of solutions: creating public awareness, legislation, and encouraging the development of technology that would reduce crashes,’ he said. ‘Technology got us into this mess, and technology can get us out.’

While the United States is still struggling with texting while driving legislation, other countries are acting with more aggression. Not only is hand-held cell phone use while driving illegal in the United Kingdom, but texting is also highly frowned upon, as suggested by the nearly two year high security prison sentencing of Phillipa Curtis.’ According to the New York Times, Curtis sent almost two dozen texts messages in the hours before rear-ending Victoria McBryde’s car and killing her in 2007.

The aggression comes at a time when new American technology is being designed to counteract the epidemic. Companies, such as Accendo LC in Ohio, are trying to commercialize Bluetooth technology to simply make it impossible for a driver to use their cell phone while driving. When a cell phone is detected by the technology, it would automatically be put into driving mode, answering calls and texts with, ‘I am driving now. I will call you later when I arrive at the destination safely.’ Another solution being considered is voice activated texting. Rather than typing ‘LOL’ to send a text message, you could simply laugh out loud, or say ‘LOL,’ and your text would be sent.

Since California’s state law banning texting while driving went into effect on the first of this year, texting while driving has decreased by 70 percent, according to the American Automobile Association. Other states are following the Golden State’s lead. In early November, both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania have announced they plan to ban texting respectively.

Since the death of his son at the hands of a texter five years ago, Teater has made it his mission to ensure that his son did not die in vain. He works actively to reduce the number crashes by distracted and teen drivers. ‘Texting literally has addictive qualities,’ Teater said. ‘But with laws, we can increase the education and understand why it is so dangerous to text and drive.’

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