R U Driving? States Take Action on Texting, Cell Phone Use While Operating a Vehicle

While there are many things that may distract drivers, cell phone usage—both texting and talking—has drawn the attention of legislators across the country. They’ve banned the use of handheld devices and prohibited new drivers from using cell phones behind the wheel. This year, legislators focused on text messaging while driving.

State News, May 2009

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In September 2008, a Metrolink commuter train failed to stop at a red-light signal and crashed head-on with a freight train; 25 people died.  Metrolink officials said the engineer ignored the signal; he had apparently been distracted by a text message from a teenage passenger.

Text messaging has been cited as the cause in similar accidents, including the 2007 deaths of five recent   high school graduates in New York who were killed when their car swerved into the path of an oncoming tractor-trailer, seconds after the driver received a text message on her phone.

Sending and receiving text messages while driving is just one aspect of a much larger problem—distracted driving, experts say. Driver inattention is a leading cause of traffic crashes, responsible for about 80 percent of all collisions, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“All it takes to cause an accident is to be distracted for as little as three seconds,” said John Townsend, manager of Public and  Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. As a result, AAA and other safety organizations urge motorists to refrain from all distracted driving activities, which include using cell phones in addition to other activities such as eating, putting on makeup or adjusting the radio.

“Driving is a full-time job and requires full-time attention,” Townsend said.

While there are many things that may distract drivers, cell phone usage—both texting and talking—has drawn the attention of legislators across the country. States have taken different approaches to combat distracted driving—such as banning the use of hand-held devices and prohibiting new drivers from using cell phones while driving—but this year, legislators focused on text messaging while driving.

“People should drive with both hands on the wheel, which is why using a cell phone is dangerous, but texting poses the most extreme peril of all,” said Maryland Sen. Jamie Raskin, who sponsored legislation this year to make it a misdemeanor in the state for anyone to write, send or read a text message while operating a vehicle. “If a person is texting while driving, he or she is using both hands on the little electronic device and paying no attention to the road. That’s terrifying.”

The Maryland legislation makes writing or sending a text message a primary offense, meaning violators can get a ticket for doing it without committing any other traffic offenses. The fine could be up to $500.

States Ban Texting

Maryland is one of 35 states this year that considered bills to ban text messaging while driving. As of April 14, four states—Arkansas, Maryland, Utah and Virginia—have approved the bans this year. Similar bans were approved by the Alabama House, Illinois House, New Hampshire House and Wyoming Senate. Mississippi also passed legislation to prohibit only drivers with an intermediate license, a temporary learning permit or a temporary driving permit from texting while driving. But the trend is nothing new. It started in 2007 when Washington became the first state to ban text messaging by drivers. Before this year, six other states—Alaska, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota and New Jersey—as well as Washington, D.C., had already followed suit.

The reasons are clear: Raskin said lawmakers heard “lots of gory testimony” from family members of victims of traffic crashes caused by texting while driving. “This is a form of accidental death and destruction that is completely avoidable. The carnage on our highways is unacceptable and we need to take the tough measures to dramatically improve safety on the roads,” he said.

Illinois Rep. Tom Holbrook, who sponsored similar legislation, spoke on the House floor about attending the funeral of a young man from his district who died in a car accident while texting his girlfriend. “People think they can multi-task, and they can’t. The results are death and carnage on the roads,” he told the Illinois House.

Raskin believes there are two reasons legislatures are focusing on texting while driving instead of the broader issue of distracted driving.

“Texting is the most extreme form of not paying attention while driving,” he said. He also believes there are “generational politics at work. It’s teens and people in their 20s who seem to text more, and a lot of older legislators seemed more comfortable banning texting before cell phone use.”

Dangers of Cell Phone Use

But talking on cell phones is also a problem. Studies that analyzed the cell phone records of drivers involved in crashes have found using a cell phone while driving is associated with approximately a quadrupling of crash risk. A study from the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis estimates that cell phone use while driving contributes to 6 percent of crashes, which equates to 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths each year. The study also put the annual financial toll of cell phone-related crashes at $43 billion.

Similarly, driving simulators find that cell phone use impairs several aspects of driver performance and most severely affects reaction time. For example, a 2008 study by Carnegie Mellon University found talking on a cell phone while driving reduces the amount of brain activity devoted to driving by 37 percent.

University of Utah researchers found that cell phone users are more likely to drift out of their lanes and miss their exits than people having conversations with someone else in the vehicle.

Because of the recent rise in text messaging use, few studies have specifically examined the correlation between text messaging and vehicle accidents.

David Strayer, psychology professor and research team director at the Applied Cognition Lab at the University of Utah, is a leading expert on the effects of using cell phones while driving. His research shows that drivers on a cell phone are four times more likely to become involved in an accident, which is the equivalent of driving with a .08 blood alcohol level. He said drivers are eight times more likely to get into an accident when text messaging.

A 2008 study by the Transport Research Laboratory found that people who texted while driving failed to detect hazards, responded to hazards more slowly, and had dangerously slowed reaction times, which could easily make the difference between causing and avoiding an accident or between a fatal and nonfatal collision. The study concluded that the reaction-time impairment caused by texting while driving was greater than that caused by drinking alcohol to the legal limit for driving, smoking marijuana, or talking on a hands-free phone.

Townsend said texting causes drivers to divert their attention, and they also take their eyes off the road and hands off the steering wheel. “In fact, text messaging on screens often no bigger than one inch squared with tiny keys that frequently must be pressed multiple times to secure the desired letter is an action which clearly demands detailed attention from the person creating such a message,” Townsend said.

But Americans continue to engage in this risky behavior. A 2008 study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that an alarming number of motorists—especially younger drivers—engaged in distracted driving behavior. Half the drivers surveyed said they used a cell phone while driving in the last 30 days, while nearly one in seven admitted to sending or reading a text message while driving.

The survey found drivers ages 18 to 24 are slightly more likely than older drivers to use a cell phone while driving, and significantly more likely to text while driving. Nearly half these younger drivers admitted they send and read text messages while driving at least occasionally, as compared to less than 5 percent of drivers over age 45.

A 2008 survey by the Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company found similar results—40 percent of teenagers and young adults admitted they send and receive text messages while driving. A similar percentage of these drivers indicated they have been hit or almost hit by another car whose driver was talking on a cell phone, according to the survey.

And that just adds to the problem. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely to crash than older drivers. “We know teen drivers already are our  highest risk drivers,” Townsend said. “Given the fact that teens are talking and texting on cells more frequently, we believe this should be addressed urgently.”

At least 18 states plus Washington, D.C., prohibit new drivers— including those with a driver’s permit or intermediate license—from using cell phones while driving. Some states simply prohibit all drivers under a certain age—usually 18— from using a cell phone while driving, either to make calls or to send text messages.

Addressing Distracted Driving

While texting has been the focus this year, several states in recent years passed high-profile legislation to ban the use of all hands-held mobile devices. Six states—California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah and Washington—plus Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands ban the use of hand-held mobile devices and require motorists to use hands-free devices instead.

But using hands-free devices may not be fixing the problem of driver distraction. Studies by David Strayer from the University of Utah and others have found using both hand-held and hands-free mobile devices carry similar risks. In a 2006 report published in the journal Human Factors, Strayer concluded that “legislative initiatives that restrict hand-held devices but permit hands-free devices are not likely to eliminate the problems associated  with using cell phones while driving.” Those studies found it is the actual act of talking on the cell phone that is distracting.

Pennsylvania has no prohibitions on the use of cell phones by motorists, but the legislature is considering legislation to require hands-free devices (and also to prohibit text messaging while driving). The push toward hands-free devices is perhaps due to PennDOT estimates that put crashes involving drivers using hand-held phones at 1,200 each year.

New technology may cut down on the use of cell phone use behind the wheel. A Canadian software company—Aegis Mobility— developed DriveAssist, a program that can tell when a phone is in motion, meaning it’s inside a moving vehicle. It sends a signal alerting incoming callers that the recipient is driving and will not accept the call. The service offers options to the caller, including the opportunity to leave a message, send an audible alert asking the driver to pull over to complete the call, or request a callback. It always allows 911 calls and offers an override feature for passengers. The software will allow parents to block teens from using a cell phone while driving and employers to block employees from using a cell phone while driving a company vehicle. Aegis Mobility expects the program to be available through all major wireless carriers by the end of 2009 for $10 to $15 a month.

Insurance companies are excited about the program; Nationwide Mutual Insurance announced in October2008 that it will provide discounts to policyholders who install the software.

Such programs could be complementary to legislation banning phone use in cars. A complete ban on cell phone use in cars, in fact, is what the National Safety Council is calling for. The council is lobbying employers to enact policies and for legislators to pass laws banning the behavior.

Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, equates the anti-cell phone movement to the one against drunken driving. “Driving drunk is also dangerous and against the law,” she said in a press release. “When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away. It’s time to take the cell phone away.”  

BTW: Facts on Cell Phone Use

  • As of June 2008, there were 262.7 million wireless ƒ. telephone subscribers, representing 84 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the CTIA– the Wireless Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization which represents the wireless industry.
  • Americans spend 2.3 trillion minutes on cell phones each year, and send more than 75 billion SMS (text) messages, CTIA reports.
  • The number of cell phone subscribers has increased to 194.4 million in June 2005 from 97 million in June 2000
  • In 2000, only 12.2 million SMS messages were sent. This increased to 7.2 billion in 2005. Since then, the number of text messages has increased by more than 1,000 percent.
  • 41 percent of Americans have logged on to the Internet outside of their offices or homes, either with a wireless laptop connection or a handheld device, according to a 2007 Pew Internet Project survey.
State News