States Tackle Texting Behind the Wheel

 

Legislators in three states are targeting text messaging to keep drivers' thumbs on the wheel and off the tiny keypads of their cell phones or wireless devices in the latest crackdown on distracted driving.

Text-messaging bills in Arizona, Connecticut and Washington state are the newest attempts by state legislatures to block the increasing distractions of electronic technology in vehicles, from the ubiquitous cell phone to DVD players, BlackBerries and GPS systems.

Four states plus the District of Columbia now outlaw hand-held cell phone use by drivers - a de facto ban on text messaging. Young or inexperienced drivers are forbidden to use cell phones at all - even using hands-free speakers or earphones - in 13 states. And 37 states prohibit TV screens from being visible to the driver.

Distracted driving was to blame in 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes, according to a study released by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute last year. The most common distraction? Cell phones, with 73 percent of drivers admitting they talk while they steer, the study found.

Text messages typed on cell phones or other wireless gadgets are growing rapidly in popularity. More than 1 trillion were sent worldwide last year, according to a study by the DeGroote School of Business in Ontario.

Arizona state Rep. Steve Farley (D), sponsor of a text-ban bill, said he considers text messaging even more of a safety problem than talking on a cell phone because it requires not just ears but eyes. "There is no way you can keep your eyes and attention on the road AND the text you are writing or reading," Farley said in an e-mail exchange. His bill would fine drivers $50 for texting, bumped up to $200 if the activity were found to contribute to an accident. Arizona currently bans school bus drivers from using a cell phone, except in emergencies, but not other drivers.

Connecticut state Rep. Lawrence Miller (R) said that he proposed a text-messaging ban because it takes a driver's hand off the wheel. "You have to hold it (the device) in place with one hand and try to spell out your message with the keyboard. I don't know how they do it," he said in a phone interview. His bill would slap drivers with a $500 fine for text messaging.

In Washington, state Rep. Joyce McDonald (D) said she proposed her bill after a BlackBerry user caused a five-car pileup on a state highway and State Patrol officers cited cell phones in cars as an increasing problem. Her bill would make text messaging a traffic offense, which normally carries a $111 fine.

Washington state also is one of 12 states weighing a plan to join California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C., in outlawing drivers from chatting on hand-held cell phones. The Washington Senate has approved the ban, but a similar measure has failed in the House previous years.

Instead of prohibiting bad driving habits one by one, some states are fashioning broader prohibitions on distracted driving. New Hampshire passed a distracted-driving law in 2001 that cites drivers with a negligent driving offense and $250 fine if motorized multi-tasking is found to be the cause of erratic driving.

Similar bills pending in Maryland, Texas and Vermont would ban driving hobbies such as talking on hand-held cell phones, reading, putting on makeup or playing a musical instrument. A new law signed last week by Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) creates a "careless driving" offense for cases in which a driver commits a traffic violation while distracted, including while holding a cell phone.

Colorado has joined 27 other states in tracking accidents that were due to cell phones, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association . The measure came after a Denver teen struck and killed a 63-year old cyclist while distracted by a text message. The state plans to release the findings next year. A study by the Indiana State Police found that since 2003, cell phones were cited as the primary cause of more than 2,000 accidents. And that's just from drivers who admitted it.

Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois and Oregon are considering increased penalties for drivers who cause accidents because of cell phones. One New York senator even aims to ban pedestrians and bicycle riders from using electronic devices while crossing streets.

Four states this year have bills pending that would make cell phones off-limits to all drivers, not just teenagers. "Every year we see a couple states that have these total prohibition type of bills," said Matt Sundeen, transportation analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Generally they don't make it very far."

Cell phone use - hands-free or not - repeatedly has been shown to impair a driver's abilities. A 2006 University of Utah study determined that drivers using cell phones were 18 percent slower in hitting the brakes. The study also found that accessories to let drivers talk without holding a cell phone had no effect on reducing impairment.

Thirteen states ban any sort of cell-phone use by either young drivers - usually under 18 - or those with learner's permits or intermediate licenses: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

A study released in January by Nationwide Mutual Insurance showed that 37 percent of "Generation Y" drivers - teenagers and adults in their 20s - text or instant message while driving, compared to 17 percent of drivers in 30s and early 40s (Generation X-ers), and 2 percent of Baby Boomers in their 50s and 60s.

 
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