Texting-while-driving ban will be hard to enforce
While texting while driving will soon be illegal, use of hand-held devices by drivers isn't, making enforcement by police difficult
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It was of little consequence and little consolation for the parents of Alexis Summers, but hours before the Summers' teen-aged daughter died in a one-car accident, the state Senate passed a measure making it illegal to communicate via text message while driving.
State police troopers on Nov. 1 found the body of the 17-year-old Saxonburg teen behind the wheel of a Subaru that had slammed into a tree, with a partially typed message on her phone.
The bill, signed into law Nov. 8 by Gov. Tom Corbett, takes effect in March 2012 and makes it a primary offense to text while driving, meaning that an officer can pull you over if they see you doing it.
Lawmakers hope this will educate drivers and curtail the urge to text, just as seatbelt laws slowly gained acceptance decades prior. But it's difficult to legislate against all of the distractions, including things like talking, eating and doing makeup, said Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, who sponsored the House version of a bill banning texts.
"I've heard critics of these kinds of laws say, 'Why are you singling out cell phones?' My response to that is they're correct, there are a whole bunch of other things that distract people, but we can only legislate so much. At some point, the driving public has to take responsibility for themselves. They're operating a 4,000-pound weapon, a vehicle that can harm and kill people."
Mr. Markosek noted that the bill he sponsored this term was a watered-down version of what he and others had hoped for initially -- namely, a prohibition on handheld phones in moving vehicles. With this narrower ban on text messaging, Pennsylvania joins 36 other states and Washington, D.C., where similar measures are already on the books.
Some of these laws focus on young drivers; other states have also placed bans on school bus drivers or official government drivers. In an effort to lead by example, the National Traffic Safety Bureau last summer prohibited its employees from talking or texting while driving.
Of course, the onus to comply with any of these bans is on individual drivers. Safe-driving advocates have tried to bridge that gap.
For example, Rob Dietz runs a new nonprofit group in coastal Maine called TxtResponsibly.org that invites site visitors to take an oath: "I will not read, write or send messages using any handheld device while driving, because I understand that it puts my life and the lives of my fellow travelers at risk of harmful injury or death."
As of last week, a smattering of Pennsylvanians, along with a thousand others around the country and the world, had taken the online pledge.
Mr. Dietz said his group considers texting the worst of all evils in terms of distraction while driving. "If you're talking on a phone hands-free, your brain activity is compromised," he said.
"If you have a cell phone in your hand, it diminishes your manual ability and your cognitive awareness. When you're texting and driving, you've got the mix of all three -- a cognitive distraction, a manual distraction and a visual distraction," he said. "It could be a lethal mix."
The data for teens texting and driving is sobering.
To begin with, teenagers are more likely to die of an injury than illness. The most likely cause of that injury is a car accident, said Dr. Barbara Gaines, director of trauma and injury prevention at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
"Most of those deaths or injuries are preventable. Wear your seatbelt and don't text when you're driving. It's just getting people to change their behavior and do things that are pretty much common sense."
Three out of four teens owns a cell phone, according to a study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. A Pew poll found that 26 percent of all driving age teens admitted they had texted while driving. Nearly half of all teenagers reported they had been a passenger while a driver texted.
Texting teens said their motivations for this behavior included the need to report their whereabouts to friends and parents, getting directions and flirting with significant others. One high-school boy nonchalantly told the pollsters: "I think it's fine. And I wear sunglasses so the cops don't see [my eyes looking down]."
Marcel Just, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has testified to the state Legislature about the dangers of cell phone use while driving.
As director of CMU's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, Mr. Just puts volunteers through a simulated driving game with built-in distractions, which isn't unlike something you'd might find at Dave & Busters -- except that the drivers are hooked up to MRI scanners.
"My research shows when you measure the brain activity of drivers if somebody's talking to you and your hands are on the wheel, that takes your attention away from your driving. Texting is enormously worse, because not only are you not thinking about driving, but you're not looking at the road. It's just deadly," he said.
"You don't really need a scientist to tell you this. I think everybody realizes the dangers ... Looking away [from the road] is a bad thing to be doing."
A Virginia Tech study in 2009 that monitored long-haul truck drivers with video cameras over 18 months, found truckers who were text messaging to be 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or a near collision than non-distracted truckers.
As for actual crash data, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 20 percent of injury accidents in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving.
Dr. Gaines, of the injury prevention department, said Children's Hospital has done outreach to schools, bringing along a driving simulator -- a touch screen computer workstation with a steering wheel attached -- that lets teenagers experience distracted driving. A cell phone rings; the program asks you to text someone.
Teenagers' brains actually operate differently, Dr. Gaines said. Neuropsychologists have done studies where they give teens and older people a set of problems. And teenagers tend to interpret the problems differently, and often choose a more risky course of action.
"This probably is something that's hard-wired. It seems to be physiological as opposed to behavioral," she said.
Children's Hospital has also partnered with judges so that kids with driving offenses are sentenced to spend a half-day at the hospital. Dr. Gaines said doctors walk them through the emergency department, intensive care and physical therapy to let them experience what it is like to be in a car accident.
They ask the teens to use crutches or a wheelchair for a short time. And then they bring in a "pretty powerful speaker," a staff member who was involved in a motor vehicle crash when he was younger and is paralyzed.
Part of the challenge for officers enforcing a text-messaging ban will be discerning from a distance what drivers whizzing past are actually doing, with their phones held below the window level. Mr. Dietz, of TxtResponsibly.org, noted that if texting is off-limits but handheld devices are not, a driver may not be texting, but may instead be dialing a number, pulling up an app, selecting a MP3 or using a navigation system, all of which would be perfectly legal.
Sgt. Dan Connolly, who oversees the Pittsburgh police accident investigations unit, said the city has seen no accidents that can be directly linked to texting, but "based on my own personal observation while driving, it is truly like driving drunk."
Chief Nate Harper said driver awareness will be the key:
"As we become more educated on the dangers of texting and driving, it is our hope that people will begin to understand that there are serious cognitive limitations that are present when taking your eyes from the road for a second. These unfortunate limitations can easily end in a tragedy, not worthy of that last text message."
First Published November 14, 2011 12:00 am